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The All Blacks 'advantage' the Chiefs have over Super Rugby Pacific rivals

By Jordan King
(Photos / Photosport)

Clayton McMillan won’t be short of talent to deploy in the locking department for Super Rugby Pacific after his squad for 2022 was revealed earlier this week.

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Brodie Retallick stands as the most notable name amongst the lot having returned from his sabbatical in Japan, but fellow All Blacks Tupou Vaa’i and Josh Lord are two others that will no doubt add some grunt to the typically tenacious pack.

Former New Zealand age-group representatives Naitoa Ah Kuoi and Laghlan McWhannell will also be pushing for selection having spent the last few seasons with the side.

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“Obviously Brodie and Tupou have showcased their ability not only historically for the Chiefs, but also at the international level,” McMillan said.

“It’s really exciting, but it’s not exciting just because of those two blokes. There’s about another three or four other blokes that I really think have played really well, and there’s potentially an advantage there for us over the other Super teams.”

No other Kiwi side will have the chance to field three players in a match day 23 with international experience in the second row. However, it wasn’t that long ago that the Chiefs’ options for who to lift in the lineout were far from desirable.

Rewind to the start of 2020 and the four locks on the books were Ah Kuoi, Tyler Ardron, Michael Allardice and McWhannell.

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The global pandemic brought Super Rugby as we knew it to an end after only seven rounds, but during that period both McWhannell and Allardice sustained season-ending injuries. Ardron also cut his deal short to take up a more lucrative contract in France.

The void left by the Canadian and those in the injury ward was filled by Vaa’i, who during the lockdown was helping his father build a fence at their family home, journeyman Ross Geldenhuys and blindside flanker Mitch Brown.

The lack of experience both in the second row and across the park ended with the Chiefs collecting the wooden spoon and failing to win a game for the first time in their history.

With Warren Gatland granted leave for 2021 for his role with the British and Irish Lions, McMillan was promoted to the top job in his absence.

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The first-time head coach had his fair share of struggles early on, but managed to turn things around off the back of a memorable second-half comeback against the Hurricanes in round four of Super Rugby Aotearoa.

That win, along with the four that followed and an appearance in the final, saw him keep his position and allow him the chance to build on what he’d established.

McMillan eyes the return of someone of Retallick’s calibre along with the eagerness of some youngsters as part of the progression.

“Brodie is an absolute legend around here and for those younger guys to be able to rub shoulders with him is only going to be beneficial for our environment. Tupou would have learnt a lot off of him while being away, as would’ve Josh Lord.

“Then I think about Naitoa Ah Kuoi. I know he hasn’t played any rugby through the NPC with concussion stuff, but he’s on the comeback trail and he’s been an absolute warrior in the absence of guys like Brodie.

“Then there’s Laggy McWhannell, who was one of the real hot, young prospects coming through New Zealand rugby a few seasons ago and has had a real rough run with injury, but he’s showcased what he’s capable of through the NPC.

“There’s sort of five locks there that we think are of the highest calibre, so it’s just going to be about keeping them fit, healthy, honest and getting the best out of each other.”

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