After making a huge impact for Waikato in his first season with the province in last year’s Mitre 10 Cup, Xavier Roe has finally been handed the No 9 jersey for the Chiefs.
The 22-year-old started his professional career with Taranaki but after two seasons sitting behind former All Black Te Toiroa Tahuriorangi, shifted home to the Waikato in 2020 and now appears to have thrust himself ahead of his former provincial teammate in the Chiefs’ pecking order.
His chances with the Chiefs come courtesy of some exceptional form for Waikato last year, with Roe making a name for himself in the first match of the Mooloo’s campaign after getting the better of All Blacks halfback TJ Perenara.
That form continued throughout the campaign and it wasn’t long before he was able to sew up a contract with the Chiefs.
“I was pretty lucky,” Roe told The XV earlier this season. “I had a few good games towards the start of Mitre 10 so that kind of set me up.
“Maybe half way through, I had a meeting with Clayton and Rog [Chiefs coaches Clayton McMillan and Roger Randle] after my Counties game and signed the contract a couple of weeks after that.”
While there was some unsurprising attention from outside the region, Roe never really considered heading elsewhere.
“I think there were a couple of looks from other clubs but nothing too major,” he said. “I signed my Chiefs contract pretty early. I’ve wanted to play for the Chiefs since I was a little kid – I remember coming to games when I was eight or nine with my nana and poppa. It was a pretty easy decision, to be honest.”
Born in Pauanui and schooled at Hamilton Boys’, Roe shifted to Taranaki due to the relative depth Waikato had at their disposal in the halfback role after representing the New Zealand Under 20s side in 2018.
I had a good talk to [coach] Andrew Strawbridge before I came back to Waikato and he said I needed to get in the gym a lot more – get fitter, get stronger. I think it was a bit of a wake-up call, to be honest.
Roe made just six appearance for the Bulls over his two-season stint with the team, however – partially due to an untimely ankle injury – but quickly found form for the Mooloos upon his return to the region.
“I put it down to a couple of things,” Roe said of his sudden improvement. “I think it was staying injury-free and changing my training regime.
“Last year, I didn’t really have any major injuries whereas when I was down in Taranaki, I was out for maybe seven months in my two-year stint there. I also trained a lot harder than what I was doing down in Taranaki and got stuck in so that kind of helped my season.
“I had a good talk to [coach] Andrew Strawbridge before I came back to Waikato and he said I needed to get in the gym a lot more – get fitter, get stronger. I think it was a bit of a wake-up call, to be honest.”
Almost nine months on from his Waikato debut, Roe is now set for his first start with the Chiefs, taking over from captain Brad Weber.
The 22-year-old made his first appearance for the Chiefs against the Highlanders in Round 1 of Super Rugby Aotearoa but has had limited chances to impress, amassing just 87 minutes throughout the season to date.
He’ll come close to notching up more game time on Sunday afternoon against the Rebels than he’s accrued throughout the rest of the season, with Weber shouldering a heavy load throughout the campaign and only likely to be called upon if the Chiefs need the extra experience on the field in the final quarter.
That will work nicely for Roe, with the young halfback likely thirsty for some proper minutes after playing week-in and week-out with Waikato last year.
Head coach McMillan revealed on Friday that the plan had always been to ease Roe into the action slowly – especially given the high pressure and high stakes of Super Rugby Aotearoa.
I’ll be really interested to see how he responds this week. If he goes really well, we might see him starting again next week, we’ll see.
Chiefs coach Clayton McMillan on Xavier Roe
“Our initial goal was to win the Aotearoa competition and we knew in that competition that you don’t have the luxury of a hell of a lot of rotation, even though we managed to get through most of our squad,” he said. There was always the intention in the Trans-Tasman competition to give those who hadn’t played a lot of rugby some exposure so that they get a taste, they grow and we start to see the rewards of their time in the coming seasons.
“Xavier is one of those people. We’ve managed him really well, I think. He got a few licks early on, [in the] first couple of games, then he played second-fiddle to Te Toiroa through the majority of Super Rugby Aotearoa and now he gets his opportunity.”
McMillan was especially impressed with how Roe played off the bench against the Reds and has issued a challenge to the youngster – and a warning to his captain.
“I thought he was another who injected some real enthusiasm and energy into the game last week and although we always wanted to give Brad a rest, he did a lot to suggest that he deserved an opportunity to start too. I’ll be really interested to see how he responds this week. If he goes really well, we might see him starting again next week, we’ll see.”
It’s just rewards for Roe, who’s in many ways a like for like replacement for Weber. Like Weber, it’s his running game that drew the interests of many fans last year and it’s something the Rebels will have to be wary of on Sunday.
“We all kind of play the same game, we all love running, we all love having the ball in our hands,” Roe told The XV. “That’s what rugby’s all about. There’s not going to be much change, I’d say, if any of us are playing. That’ll be a plus with this Chiefs team. We’re all quick as well so if we do get in a hole, we’ll no doubt take it.
“Rog wants me to still show my running game but also want me to play in the system and that. They’re definitely still encouraging of my running game because I guess it’s a point of difference – it’s just managing when I do it, when the right time to have a dart is.”
If we earn the right to be able to play some expansive Chiefs rugby then we’ll do that but we’ve found when we played the Force, as an example, if you start getting a bit too loose early, you don’t earn that right, sometimes you can get a bit sloppy.
McMillan on the attitude needed from the Chiefs on Sunday afteroon
At the same time, Roe is aware that it’s his core skills that will need finessing if he wants to really push for a long-term starting spot at Super Rugby level.
“Passing, kicking and tackling is the bread and butter of a halfback,” he acknowledged. “I’m still well off where I want to be with my passing and kicking and I’ll keep chipping away at that over the next two or three years but also having my running game in my back pocket when I need it.”
Sunday presents the first opportunity for Roe to really showcase his talents at this level and while the Chiefs will go into the game as clear favourites, the team is well aware after last weekend that if they’re not at the top of the game, they could find themselves on the wrong end of the scoreboard.
“If we earn the right to be able to play some expansive Chiefs rugby then we’ll do that but we’ve found when we played the Force, as an example, if you start getting a bit too loose early, you don’t earn that right, sometimes you can get a bit sloppy,” McMillan said. “Errors start to creep in. You allow the opposition to stay in the game longer than what you anticipate and then it becomes a real dog fight. The old Aussies, they don’t mind getting up for a bit of a scrap.”
It will be up to Roe, controlling things at the base of the ruck, to ensure that the Chiefs don’t get too frantic too early. It’s a big challenge for the little halfback, but one he’ll no doubt welcome with open arms.