The first match-day squad for the Chiefs is far from the strongest on paper, but it again shows depth and an unfaltering confidence in unproven talent.

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It would’ve been so easy for head coach Clayton McMillan to go with a more assured approach heading into a game that the Chiefs’ inner circle say is about putting pride back in the jersey.

The surprise package has got to be the inclusion of young loose forward Samipeni Finau. Born in Tonga, the 21-year old’s Super Rugby debut in the No 6 jersey feels ahead of time in many respects, but it’s also a tactic that the Chiefs are known for when it comes to selection at the beginning of new campaigns.

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Ross Karl, Bryn Hall and James Parsons look back at the Crusaders win over the Highlanders and analyse Tony Brown’s comments about the high penalty count which he felt had an impact on the outcome of the game.

Chiefs head coach Clayton McMillan alluded to the fact that – at least initially – Finau was only named in the squad as injury cover and sat well down the overall pecking order.

But like Tupou Vaa’i, who was also picked out of seemingly nowhere last season, you get the feeling that rugby pundits could be talking much more about Finau if the Tongan-born lock-cum-flanker can live up to his undoubted potential.

Looking to use their bench as a weapon late in the game, starting the Super Rugby rookie was the clear preference for the Chiefs who will take to the field in Hamilton with an effective split between four experienced loose forwards available for selection, two in the starting XV and two off the bench.

McMillan might be a new coach at this level but has faith in the decision, opting to keep the two Mitchells – Brown and Karpik – who bring a combined 74-caps of experience to the fold, on the bench.

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Finau won’t be a name lost on devout rugby followers in the Waikato. A New Zealand Under 20s representative and standout for his province in last season’s Mitre 10 Cup, the 21-year old is a strong ball carrier that possesses the defensive skill set that has impressed.

“He’s a big guy and he’s explosive,” McMillan says about his observations of Finau. “His ability to carry has been really impressive and defensively he has got a lot of hurt in his intentions.

“He’s been doing some stuff really well in the pre-season to warrant a starting opportunity and if he goes well it will present opportunities moving forward.”

 

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Like so many in the locker room, getting the likes of Finau experience at this level is likely part of the long-term plan. This isn’t the Crusaders – a side that Finau trained with last season but never had the opportunity to run onto the park for – there isn’t the luxury of having developed talent just waiting in the wings to come in and make an impact.

The Chiefs had their share of lineout issues in 2020 but recovered well enough under Bradley Slater, who impressed in behind Samisoni Taukei’aho. Taukei’aho, however, has seemingly taken over again as the first-choice pick.

Finau put in a lot of work in the lineout this week, taking reps alongside Vaa’i and Luke Jacobson who join Naitoa Ah Kuoi as the likely throw receivers.

Coming off an 0-8 season and desperate to make a statement, putting faith in the fresh Finau for the first game (not a must-win, but critical to get the side off to the start they need to be genuine contenders) should speak volumes to the mindset inside Chiefs HQ.

The selection isn’t a cynical one. It’s the case of a team willing to blood reasonably new talent sooner rather than later and also put a huge amount of faith in experience to come off the bench and make that dividing impact when the game is on the line.

Given context of where the Chiefs were at last season – it’s an almighty ballsy approach that shows the team knew that they weren’t too far off the pace at all.

In classic Chiefs fashion, the franchise does come into its season-opener carrying a few niggles, some of which have undoubtably had an impact on the shape of the matchday XV.

The biggest omission is Lachlan Boshier who is ruled out with a minor foot niggle.

Whilst the superstar loose forward from 2020 would’ve been selected had the Chiefs desperately required his services, managing Boshier’s workload and ensuring that he’s 100% upon return after a grueling last season will be paramount to his longevity this season.

Another brow-raising omission is Nathan Harris – seemingly overlooked after being left off the injury list and not mentioned at all in todays squad announcement. A long term plan to getting Harris back in genuine contention for the match-day squad is in place after the veteran hookers long stint on the sideline.

Friday’s match between the Chiefs and the Highlanders kicks off at 7:05pm on Friday evening (NZT) from Waikato Stadium. All the action will be streamed live on RugbyPass for subscribers who have purchased a Super Rugby Aotearoa season pass in the UK, Ireland, France and other major territories.

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