Despite a promising start, 2020 was a dud year for the Chiefs and new coach Warren Gatland. There were a few factors involved in their downturn in fortunes, which the coaching staff will no doubt be focussing on as the season review continues, but the team still has a great backbone from which they can build next year, providing that some astute recruitment is performed over the coming months.
This year’s second row stocks were hit particularly hard.
Brodie Retallick was on sabbatical, initially in Japan and then on his family farm in Hawke’s Bay, and the Chiefs won’t have the rangey enforcer on their books next season either. Michael Allardice, the only senior specialist lock in the squad, was cut down by injury and played just four matches – zero in Super Rugby Aotearoa. It was a similar story for utility forward Tyler Ardron who, despite playing much of his Chiefs career in the loose forwards, was named in the second row at the start of the season but also got through just four games.
Mitch Brown, also primarily a loose forward, was shoulder tapped to play at lock early in the season and was a beacon of light for the Chiefs, leading from the front and always reliably earning go-forward. For all his athleticism and ability, however, the 27-year-old is simply too short to be a long-term solution in the second row.
That left young guns Laghlan McWhannell and Naitoa Ah Kuoi. McWhannell, who was impressive for the New Zealand under 20 side in 2018, has yet to play a game for the Chiefs over two seasons thanks to a horrid run with injuries. Ah Kuoi, who probably expected to see few opportunities in 2020, ended up making 12 appearances (despite an injury of his own). Tupou Vaa’i was also called up to the squad for Super Rugby Aotearoa and excelled, now being rewarded with a call-up to the North Island squad for the upcoming North v South match.
In McWhannell, Ah Kuoi and Vaa’i, the Chiefs have three of the most promising locks in the country. McWhannell, the oldest at 21, still has zero playing experience at Super Rugby level, however, while the other two are equally as green behind their ears with fewer than 20 provincial caps between them.
Allardice is now heading off shore, which leaves the Chiefs in a bit of a pickle and in desperate need of some experienced tall timber they can slot into the second row for next season.
Unfortunately, there’s not exactly a plentiful supply of free-agents going around New Zealand at the moment. In general, there’s a bit of dearth in the second row – partially due to Japan’s thirst for tall Kiwis.
The likes of Liaki Moli, Mark Abbott, Jackson Hemopo, Tom Franklin, Joe Latta, Josh Bekhuis and Joe Wheeler would all still look comfortable playing Super Rugby in New Zealand but have wisely followed the coin to the Land of the Rising Sun.
One fast-rising NZ star who hasn’t officially renewed his Super Rugby contract for next season is the Crusaders’ Mitchell Dunshea. The 24-year-old has been an almost permanent fixture in the Aotearoa champions’ second row this year and has ties to the Chiefs, being born in Hamilton.
Next season, Dunshea would be in competition with Scott Barrett, Sam Whitelock and fast-rising Quinten Strange for game time at the Crusaders while a spot in the Chiefs’ second row could be all but guaranteed, should Dunshea look north.
Alternatively, Mike Fitzgerald was a title-winner with the Chiefs during their 2012 and 2013 seasons and is now back in New Zealand, following stints with Leicester and Kamaishi. Fitzgerald is signed with the Manawatu Turbos for the coming Mitre 10 Cup season but an injury could prevent the 33-year-old from taking the field, which could curtail any chances of the former Chief picking up another Super Rugby contract.
The other position where the Chiefs are notably lacking in numbers is at first five. Tiaan Falcon will join Allardice in Japan while Aaron Cruden’s one-season stint back with his former side has also come to an end.
Anyone who watched 2019's Mitre 10 Cup would tell you that Lincoln McClutchie was one of the best first fives on display. Why, then, wasn't the pivot playing Super Rugby this year? @TomVinicombe reveals all. #SuperRugby #TopLeaguehttps://t.co/1hAsn0fWC6
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) May 7, 2020
Cruden’s return will have been a huge blessing for young Bay of Plenty pivot Kaleb Trask, who’s had ample opportunity to clock up some runs while also learning from one of the best in the business. Still, having just one first five on your books – and a 21-year-old at that – is a recipe for disaster.
Thankfully, there are a few men around New Zealand who are currently without 2021 contracts.
The Highlanders’ Bryn Gatland is a Hamilton man through and through and could (eventually) link up with his father at the Chiefs. His time with the southerners has been blighted by injury and he’s had few opportunities to impress this season thanks to the prescens of Mitch Hunt and Josh Ioane.
Heading north, Crusader and one-cap All Black Brett Cameron is at the end of his contract and could be interested in heading a bit closer to his home on Wanganui while Fletcher Smith is signed with the Hurricanes just for 2020. Smith’s rival for the Hurricanes’ 10 jersey, Jackson Garden-Bachop, has just extended his contract with the Hurricanes and had ample game time this year while Smith struggled to even make the bench. He currently plays his provincial rugby for Waikato.
Harry Plummer at the Blues is another relatively experienced option who hasn’t signed on for 2021 but with Beauden Barrett heading to Japan for the season, Leon MacDonald will likely try hold onto Plummer.
There are also plenty of talent first fives who will be showing off their wares in the Mitre 10 Cup. Baden Kerr and Lincoln McClutchie have returned from Japan to line up for Counties Manukau and Hawke’s Bay, respectively. They’re at the opposite end of their careers but are both talented footballers in their own rights.
Closer to home, Waikato’s Rivez Reihana spent two seasons with the New Zealand secondary schools side and with another season of provincial rugby under his belt, could be ready for a debut season with the Chiefs.
Outside lock and first five, the Chiefs are well stocked with talent across the park and certainly have the talent to return to glory next season. It’s worth noting, however, that the Chiefs’ three All Blacks props, Atu Moli, Angus Ta’avao and Nepo Laulala, are all off contract at this stage. They all had somewhat limited roles for the team this season (due to injury, naturally) but will be massive figures for the franchise going forward if they re-sign.
It certainly wasn’t the greatest season for the Chiefs, by any stretch of the imagination, but there’s plenty of reason for optimism heading into next year. Providing that interim coach Clayton McMillan can make a few solid recruitments in the coming months, the Chiefs could return to being a New Zealand super power in 2021.
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