Clayton McMillan has made twenty positional changes to the Chiefs’ match-day team for this evening’s clash from the Blues and while the first-year coach isn’t expecting his young side to roll over against the comparative experience of their opposition, it’s a decision that’s effectively been forced by this year’s unusual draw.
While the Chiefs had their two Super Rugby Aotearoa byes in the fifth and tenth rounds of the competition last year, they’ve come in the first and sixth rounds in 2021.
That handed them an extra week of preparation at the start of the season but means they’ll have to face a relentless gauntlet of matches as their campaign progresses.
There are no byes in Super Rugby Trans-Tasman, which kicks of immediately after the Aotearoa final.
Had the Chiefs not made the final, they’d be able to enjoy a rest next weekend and then roll out close to their top side for the remaining five or six matches of the season.
That’s not how the cards have fallen, however, with last year’s cellar dwellers coming back from two losses to kick off the season and winning five on the trot, catapulting them into the final alongside the ever-classy Crusaders.
While that’s obviously exactly where the Chiefs want to be, it does make things tricky for McMillan and his charges.
“Where our byes have fallen, we’ve not only had to play finals rugby for the last five or six weeks but we aren’t going to get a break from this point either,” McMillan said after naming his time to take on the Blues.
“It would be nice to have a week off but I guess most other teams are having that next week, aren’t they? We’re certainly not disappointed about having to play next week so it is what it is.
“If the Blues had got a bonus point last week it certainly would have forced our hand a little bit more to keep rolling the guys out. We’ve been fortunate – but I reiterate that our guys are pretty dinged up and it’s not just this week and next week, it’s another five or six weeks straight after that.”
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) April 30, 2021
The Chiefs’ opening Trans-Tasman matches are against the three sides that have qualified for the Super Rugby AU finals, the Western Force, Brumbies and Reds. There will be few opportunities amongst those matches to rest players, with means today’s dead-rubber clash with the Blues is really the final chance that some senior Chiefs will have to take a break before everything goes back on the line again from next weekend.
As such, McMillan has made a huge number of changes, handing potential Chiefs debuts to six players and naming 11 men who are in their inaugural year of Super Rugby.
There’s some experience on the bench in the form of All Blacks Nathan Harris and Liam Messam, who have more Super Rugby caps between them than the rest of the side altogether.
While it could just be ‘coach speak’ from McMillan, he’s hopeful that his youthful side can still front up against a Blues team boasting seven All Blacks.
“This game on the weekend gives those who haven’t played a significant amount an opportunity to one, demonstrate that they’re good enough to play in the final the following week and two, put their hand up for regular selection through Trans-Tasman.
“I’ve made it really clear that there’s probably seven spots up for grabs in the match-day 23 against the Crusaders in a week’s time. Everybody that plays on the week has a massive amount to play for.
“There’s no guarantee that they’re in there any longer than the next couple of weeks but a bit like the other fellas, a good performance might force our hand to keep them in.
“That’s not to say that we won’t get a result this week by rolling out the team that we’ve done. [Winning is] certainly our intention.”
The Chiefs have made 20 changes to their match-day squad for their dead rubber clash with the Blues. That's no surprise, given how important every single game of #SuperRugbyAotearoa has been up until this point. #BLUvCHI
— The XV Rugby (@TheXV) April 30, 2021
McMillan reiterated what assistant David Hill has said earlier in the week, all the Chiefs attentions have been on today’s match – not looking forward to the final against the Crusaders.
“We respect that the Blues are going to be a formidable opposition up there,” he said. “They’ll obviously be hurting that they’re not going to be playing the final week.
“We need to ensure a young team that’s going out this week are given every opportunity to put their best foot forward and if we’ve got out our eyes or our thoughts too far forward, we’re just setting them up for failure and that’s not us.”
Tonight’s match kicks off at 7:05pm NZT, with Blues and Chiefs Women’s selections going head to head in the curtain-raiser at 4:35pm.
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