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'You're gonna see a lot of players turning up in different teams'

By Tom Vinicombe
(Photo by Michael Bradley/Getty Images)

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While the impacts of Covid and injuries aren’t foreign to any of Super Rugby’s head coaches, there’s one new factor that the New Zealand franchises will have to contend with in 2022: the addition of a sixth team in the form of Moana Pasifika.

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In years gone by, the top 150 to 200 players in NZ have picked up full-time contracts and when injuries have struck, the next best cabs off the rank have received call-ups and sometimes gone on to make massive impacts throughout the season.

That’s been especially true for the Chiefs. In 2018, a propping injury crisis saw replacement players Karl Tu’inukuafe and Angus Ta’avao brought into the team, with both players earning significant minutes throughout the season and going on to make their test rugby debuts later that year. It was a similar story with Tupou Vaa’i in 2020.

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With Moana Pasifika joining the mix this season, however, and recruiting their own squad of almost 40 players, the pool of replacements has undoubtedly been hit hard.

It’s clear already from the pre-season that the majority of the next tier of players are already earning their stripes at the six franchises around the country with the likes of wing Freedom Vahaakolo set to run out for the Crusaders this weekend and loose forwards Tom Florence and Mitch Jacobson suiting up for the Chiefs.

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While those players would normally semi-commit to a club once joining up with them at any stage during the season, that’s unlikely to be the case in 2022 according to Chiefs head coach Clayton McMillan.

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“I just don’t think we’re going to have that luxury this year,” McMillan said ahead of the Chiefs’ pre-season match with Moana Pasifika. “I think you’re gonna see a lot of players turning up in different teams over the course of the competition.

“That’s something we’ve sort of spoken about as coaches, to maintain the integrity of the competition, to make sure that we’ve got good players and specialist players in certain positions, the only way we can sort of achieve that is to accept that players will be able to move from one club to another through the duration of the season.”

With the six teams all basing themselves in Queenstown for the opening weeks of the competition, as of this weekend, it also means the work done late last year and throughout January could prove crucial down the line when replacement players are called up with little notice, with McMillan indicating the Chiefs will likely travel with just their full-time contracted squad members.

“Our priority in Queenstown will be to take our fully contracted players down there – the exception being if we’ve got a couple of dings in a certain position that opens the door for a replacement player to come down,” McMillan said. “But those guys have got a lot to play for [in this Friday’s pre-season hit-out].

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“I think that Covid will definitely play a part in the availability of players through the competition. Injury always plays a part. A lot of the guys that have been in as replacement players through all of the franchises … while they’re probably disappointed to know that their journey might end, at the moment, after the weekend’s games, I don’t think many of them will miss an opportunity to play Super Rugby if they stay ready over the next couple of months.”

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McMillan was also complimentary of the work those replacement players have done over the past month, especially with the All Blacks only returning to duty earlier this week.

“I’ve been really stoked with all the guys that we’ve brought in,” he said. “They come in and they’re sponges, they want to learn. And they’ve been critical for us. I think we’ve had a good pre-season. We’ve still got a couple of weeks to go but I’m really happy with where we’re at and they play a big part in that. We’ve got 10, 11 All Blacks that have only just turned up yesterday. Today might have been their first full day of training. So that’s a fair chunk of players and you just can’t move forward unless you’ve got the numbers.

“So those guys played a critical role and they’ve been privy to all the team work we do on the field but also the cultural stuff and everything that we feel makes us special off the field, they’re part of that. And when they leave, we’re sad to see them go and we hope we are able to provide them with an opportunity somewhere down the track when the opportunity arises.”

The Chiefs are set to take on Moana Pasifika this Friday before both sides travel down to Queenstown over the weekend ahead of the February 18 kick-off.

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