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Why Tupou Vaa'i could be a valued All Blacks asset at next year's World Cup

By Alex McLeod
(Photo by Fiona Goodall/Getty Images)

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The story of Tupou Vaa’i on-off positional shift from lock to blindside flanker will enter a new chapter this weekend when the Chiefs host the Crusaders in a blockbuster Super Rugby Pacific clash in Hamilton on Saturday.

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Frequently have the Chiefs opted to use the young second rower on the side of the scrum rather than in the second row this season as injuries and Covid cases take a toll on the Hamilton-based franchises, and their rival Kiwi sides.

The added factor of impressive lock depth through the presence of All Blacks pair Brodie Retallick and Josh Lord has contributed to head coach Clayton McMillan’s decision to thrust Vaa’i at No 6 on occasion throughout the course of the year.

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That, as well as the 22-year-old’s valuable athletic attributes, has culminated in some standout performances by Vaa’i in his new position in recent weeks, resulting in his retention at blindside flanker against the Crusaders this weekend.

The 11-test All Black’s newfound versatility and strong form will be of upmost importance for the Chiefs as they go head-to-head with their main title rivals in what is effectively a clash of New Zealand’s Super Rugby titans.

Both teams loom as the strongest contenders to clinch the first-ever Super Rugby Pacific crown, and the stage has been set for another barnstorming encounter between the two sides at FMG Stadium Waikato after the Chiefs stole a last-gasp 24-21 win in Christchurch a fortnight ago.

Crucially, the Chiefs will be without arguably their best player this season, Pita Gus Sowakula, who is absent from the No 8 jersey this weekend after enduring a heavy workload in weeks gone by.

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That places extra emphasis on Vaa’i to lead from the front in a loose forward trio that includes co-captain Sam Cane and inexperienced No 8 Samipeni Finau, who McMillan said was a like-for-like replacement for Sowakula.

Pressure to perform in a position he isn’t overly familiar with might be daunting for most, but McMillan has full confidence in Vaa’i to continue the rich vein of form that he believes has made the youngster an eye-catching World Cup prospect for the All Blacks.

“I can only imagine Fozzy [All Blacks coach Ian Foster] and his team will be taking an active interest everybody that’s playing Super Rugby,” McMillan told media in the lead-up to his side’s bout with the Crusaders.

“I imagine the way that Tups has been playing over the last few weeks, particularly out of his traditional position, will be of interest.

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“When you start thinking about things like Rugby World Cup coming up, you know that versatility in a reduced squad certainly has its benefits, so I don’t think it’s harming his chances, not with the way he’s performing.”

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McMillan added that, without Sowakula on deck, the decision to continue to select Vaa’i as a loose forward is one that has been forced upon the Chiefs due to the unavailability of various players.

“I think he’s getting better and better in that position. It’s still a little bit out of necessity. We could have put Samipeni Finau there, but we’ve obviously put him there in the absence of Pita Gus,” he said.

“Luke Jacobson, Mitch Brown and a few others that we’ve used at 6 still remain on the sideline, so while we’ve got some pretty handy locks, we’re quite happy to continue to use Tupou at 6 for the time being.”

Of the absentees McMillan alluded to, Jacobson – the 12-test All Blacks powerhouse – is by far the most prominent in terms of stature and reputation, but he is expected to return to action after having not been sighted since round one.

“Luke Jacobson could have played this week at a pinch, but, again, given the magnitude of the game, we don’t really want to risk putting him out there when he’s not 100 percent, so I think another week and we’ll see him back out on the park.”

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