'They're learning some harsh lessons': Baptism by fire for young Chiefs
Like the other New Zealand Super Rugby sides, the Chiefs have welcomed a significant group of additional players into their set-up for the pre-season, including a small contingent of age-grade players who could become long-term prospects for the side.
With the Chiefs’ 10 current All Blacks enjoying an extended break over the summer, 20 players have been brought in on a temporary basis to ensure there are plenty of numbers at training but if past seasons are anything to go by, a number of those additional players could also feature on the playing field come the Super Rugby Pacific season, which kicks off next month.
In 2021, the Chiefs used eight extra players on top of their initial 37-man squad, with Saminpeni Finau, Joe Apikotoa, Viliami Taulani, Zane Kapeli, Ezekiel Lindenmuth, Liam Messam, Tom Florence and Gideon Wrampling all earning call-ups throughout the campaign.
As such, it would come as no surprise if some of the current contingent training with the team also have the chance to don a Chiefs jersey during the season, especially with the added complication of Covid. Having the additional players in camp already means that if they are called upon at any stage, coach Clayton McMillan is hopeful they’ll immediately be ready for action.
“We’ve been rapt with the replacement players and the younger guys, the national development contracted players coming into our environment,” McMillan said. “You sort of get that group in every year to fill a void when the All Blacks are on extended leave but it’s probably become more important this year because I don’t think any of us are optimistic enough to think that Covid isn’t going to have an impact of some sort over the duration of the Super Rugby competition. It’s going to test everybody’s squad, I think, because people will be out and under restrictions, under some sort of lockdown and isolation rules and so having more bodies available to us now kind of accelerates their development.
“They’re pretty clear around how we operate and the way we want to play the game so I imagine that every person that’s in our environment and potentially more that aren’t currently in the environment will get opportunities to play Super Rugby this year.”
“It also rewards players that had a really good NPC but maybe because contracting had been completed, didn’t pick up full contracts,” McMillan later added. “So it’s good to see them get a better handle on their ability and it gives us all confidence that when the time comes for them to step into a void that they’ll do that and not only just do it, but thrive.
As alluded to by McMillan, the likes of Mitch Jacobson, Liam Coombes-Fabling and George Dyer were exceptional for Waikato during their NPC title-winning run and a pre-season contract is just desserts for their form throughout the season.
They’re also well-versed in operating in a professional environment, which is perhaps more than can be said for the five teenagers also currently training with the group, including Adam Lennox, Josh Bartlett, Mason Tupaua, Nikora Broughton and Veveni Lasaqa.
That quintet of players have been identified as ones for the future – but that’s not to say they also might not feature during the season.
“They’re eager beavers,” said McMillan. “First week or two they were pretty quiet – probably a little bit star-struck, to be perfectly honest.
“[There’s] a lot of talent in those five young men. Been identified through our pathway programme and played well for their provincial teams so deserve their opportunity here. Great initiative from New Zealand Rugby union to, I guess, identify those young people coming through our system and accelerate their development by giving them exposure in Super Rugby environments on pretty much a full-time basis.
“They’re learning some harsh lessons but they’re learning them quickly and we’ve got to remind ourselves that sometimes they’re still only 19 years of age and sometimes we’ve got to wrap them in cotton wool because they’re just eager to please and some of them may even get an opportunity [during the season]. We don’t know whether that’s going to get across the line but I imagine if Covid went bananas at some stage during the year then quite conceivably some of those young blokes might get an opportunity.”
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