These are the players the Chiefs missed most when they lost to the Hurricanes in Hamilton on Sunday: Brodie Retallick, Daylight, Tyler Ardron, Anton Lienert-Brown…
They are also missing flanker Luke Jacobson and his hard shoulder on the tackle, prop Atu Moli’s sheer physical presence and hooker Nathan Harris’ set-piece nous and execution. All of this trio are crocked for the rest of Super Rugby Aotearoa.
Ardron left the franchise last week to take up a contract in France, despite having another year to run on his Chiefs’ deal.
But the Chiefs were always going to rue the decision of Brodie Retallick to take up a two-year stint with Kobe Steelers in Japan, which was to rule him out of the 2020 and 2021 Super Rugby seasons.
The Chiefs were always going to miss him more than the Hurricanes would miss Beauden Barrett, the Crusaders would miss Kieran Read and the Highlanders would miss Ben Smith.
That’s because the world-class 29-year-old lock, with 107 Chiefs caps to his name, drives much of the momentum of the Chiefs’ forwards work. He’s done that since he turned up at the age of 20 in 2012 and started cleaning out like a horizontal pile-driver, pulling down lineout ball and tackling like there was no tomorrow.
Then he added the softer touches, slipping passes that you just do not see from the Northern Hemisphere big men. Retallick is as complete a lock as you’ll see.
Ardon, the admirable Canadian, stepped up in 2019 to fill the void when Retallick missed eight games. The team hung tough and made the playoffs.
But he has now departed, Michael Allardice and the luckless Laghlan McWhannell are also gone for the season, and the Chiefs’ locking stocks are now as thin as balsa wood and green around the gills.
Naitoa Ah Kuoi left the field on a stretcher against the Hurricanes. He has played all 10 games in 2020, the last three as a starter, and acquitted himself well. But he needed a seasoned second-rower to help guide him.
Tupou Vaa’i, barely 20, is being promoted, possibly ahead of his time, despite clear promise. Taranaki’s Mitch Brown has stepped up manfully, but is more of a No 6 who can fill in at lock.
The Chiefs are creaking in the forwards, lacking the grunt that Retallick possesses in spades, even with the return of All Blacks’ skipper Sam Cane. Where they were commanding the loose ball pre-Covid, when Lachie Boshier was in fine touch, now they are ceding the collisions and set-pieces to opponents.
The net result is 0-4 on this side of Covid. It is no real surprise, but coach Warren Gatland must be dismayed that nothing is falling his way on the injury front.
Gatland, who was mystifyingly rated the greatest coach of all time by UK magazine Rugby World, must have been sorely tempted a few weeks ago to issue an SOS to Retallick, who is relaxing at his Hawke’s Bay home while his old team disintegrates.
Was there a case to sign Retallick to an injury replacement contract, somehow come to an agreement on how much insurance to pay Kobe, and let him loose on fringers at ruck time?
Chiefs fans will be cursing these accursed sabbaticals while their team, 4-2 by mid-March, and still well in the mix to win its third Super Rugby crown, will now do well to avoid the first wooden spoon of Super Rugby Aotearoa.
Meanwhile the Chiefs’ greatest lock, the world’s best lock, has his feet up (as is his contractual right) while the team that made his name hits the skids.
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