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FEATURE Immovable object could be last piece of Chiefs dynasty puzzle

Immovable object could be last piece of Chiefs dynasty puzzle
1 year ago

There’s something special brewing in Chiefs country.

While there are no guarantees about how the Super Rugby Pacific finals series will unfold this year, the Hamilton-based side have put themselves in pole position to take out their first title in a decade. But whatever unfolds in the short-term future for Clayton McMillan’s men, it’s the years to come that hold so much promise.

Starting at the top, McMillan has already signed on as head coach through to 2026, providing the Chiefs with the long-term continuity that the Crusaders, Blues and Hurricanes could only dream of.

Next year, Scott Robertson, Leon MacDonald and Jason Holland will leave their posts as Super Rugby head coaches to take up roles with the All Blacks. The Crusaders have already lost Andrew Goodman and Jason Ryan in recent times while Chris Gibbes will follow Holland out the door at the Hurricanes, and there’s no certainty that Tom Coventry will remain with the Blues if he misses out on the head coaching role after MacDonald’s promotion to the national side.

For the Chiefs, however, 2024 will be business as usual.

Coach Clayton McMillan has inked a long-term deal with the Chiefs. (Photo by John Davidson/Photosport)

Player-wise, the Chiefs will also take the smallest blow in terms of turnover.

All Black Brodie Retallick will be the hardest man to replace.

While the loss of Retallick’s experience will leave a hole for some time, McMillan can at least point to some impressive succession planning in the second row that will soften the blow, with young All Blacks Tupou Vaa’i and Josh Lord both signed on for next season. The likes of Naitoa Ah Kuoi, Manaaki Selby-Rickit and Laghlan McWhannell are also impressive specimens with ample runs under their belt, with all three set to earn minutes in Saturday night’s clash with the Western Force.

Brad Weber is the other major loss, but Cortez Ratima has undertaken a strong apprenticeship throughout 2023 and the injured Xavier Roe will no doubt be back in full force next year, aiming to wrestle the No 9 jersey off Ratima, the man who once served as his back-up at Waikato.

The ever-impressive Alex Nankivell has also called time on his career but the Chiefs are also well-stocked in the midfield, with Daniel Rona coming on in leaps and bounds this season, Anton Lienert-Brown putting pen to paper for another three years, and the sidelined Quinn Tupaea due back on the field in the coming months. Factor in rising star Gideon Wrampling and the reliable Rameka Poihipi, who will start at first five-eighth against the Force, and McMillan will once again have a juggling act on his hands next year, even with Nankivell Munster-bound.

Two-cap All Black Pita Gus Sowakula is a loss, no doubt, but Samipeni Finau’s development has been eye-catching in 2023.

It’s in the loose forwards that the Chiefs will have most to crow about, however.

Two-cap All Black Pita Gus Sowakula is a loss, no doubt, but Samipeni Finau’s form has been eye-catching in 2023. It’s perhaps a year too early for the 24-year-old to break into the national ranks but he has likely done enough to pip Sowakula for the Chiefs No 6 jersey heading into the sudden death stages of Super Rugby Pacific and will form a strong trio alongside Sam Cane and Luke Jacobson – who looks set for an All Blacks recall in the weeks ahead – for the years to come.

There’s another young, unheralded loosie who will also soon be causing a ruckus in New Zealand rugby.

23-year-old Simon Parker is now into his fourth season with the Chiefs but has managed just seven appearances for the side thanks to a horrid run of injuries which have required multiple surgeries throughout the early stages of his professional career. In fact, Parker has chalked up just 11 caps for Waikato during that same time period.

McMillan has stuck by the youngster, however, and while Parker hasn’t necessarily been overworked on the park this season, accruing three appearances off the bench and one start to date, there are signs that the big man could play a massive role in the club’s future.

Simon Parker takes on the Hurricanes defence. (Photo by David Rowland/AFP)

At 1.97 metres tall and weighing in at a hefty 117 kilograms, Parker is a sight to behold on the field and a number of unsuspecting ball carriers have already been turned around by the rookie loose forward.

While the fixture between the Chiefs and the Reds in New Plymouth will have been quickly forgotten by fans of the home side, there were sparks of hope amongst the disappointment of the first loss of the season. It was in said fixture that Parker made his starting debut, and he certainly made his presence felt.

James O’Connor – playing in the No 12 jersey – was flattened by the man almost 10 years his junior off the back of a lineout, putting an end to any constructed move from the set-piece:

Later in the match, Parker combined with prop Ollie Norris to put Harry Wilson on the deck:

The end result didn’t fall in Parker and his teammate’s favour, but it was an important hit-out for the youngster – and this weekend’s match-up with the Force in Perth will prove equally as important for the budding loose forward.

Finau, Cane and Jacobson may form the first-choice trio next season, but Parker could be snapping at their heels if he’s able to get some time on the field for Waikato during the NPC.

Cane’s availability for the 2024 campaign is also not guaranteed, with a sabbatical option available to the All Blacks captain, in which case Parker could find himself donning the No 8 jersey on a regular basis and Jacobson switching to the openside flank. While Jacobson has made a good fist of the fetcher role when needed, McMillan will be scouring the NPC scene for a young No 7 who can be moulded into a long-term Chief and take some of the load off next year’s likely captain.

Kaylum Boshier is also an option in the role, but like many of his loose forward teammates, is better suited to either the blindside flank or the back of the scrum.

Damian McKenzie has locked in his short-term future with the Chiefs. (Photo by Michael Bradley/Getty Images)

Still, even with Cane and Retallick out of the picture, the Chiefs look well-placed for the post-World Cup era. In 2021, with Cane injured and Retallick in Japan, McMillan was able to lead the side to a Super Rugby Aotearoa final and he will undoubtedly harbour similar ambitions next season, especially with the likes of key performers Lienert-Brown, Damian McKenzie and Samisoni Taukei’aho locked in for the campaign.

Contrast that with some of the other Super Rugby sides, who won’t just lose their head coaches in 2024 but some of their most important players.

The Blues will bid farewell to Beauden Barrett, Nepo Laulala and Roger Tuivasa-Sheck while the Crusaders will be without Sam Whitelock, Richie Mo’unga and likely Leicester Fainga’anuku. The Hurricanes will have to cope without the experience of Dane Coles and Ardie Savea (on sabbatical in Japan) and the Highlanders, who have already struggled in 2023, are saying goodbye to Aaron Smith, Shannon Frizzell and Marino Mikaele-Tu’u.

The next four weeks could see the Chiefs chalk up a long-awaited third Super Rugby title but it’s the years to come that should have fans excited – the future is remarkably bright in Chiefs country.

Comments

1 Comment
m
mknz 382 days ago

The Chiefs played the Reds in New Plymouth.

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