Initial impressions: the Chiefs

Adam Julian Roar Guru

By , Adam Julian is a Roar Guru & Live Blogger

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    Dave Rennie, Michael Leitch, Aaron Cruden, Tawera-Kerr Barlow, James Lowe, Stephen Donald and Hika Elliot are all gone from the Chiefs in 2018.

    The Rennie reign was a golden one for the Hamilton-based franchise. The Chiefs made the playoffs for six years in a row and won 72 out of 105 games, capturing titles in 2012 and 2013.

    Can the Chiefs maintain their position as a perennial contender following such a vast exodus of experience?

    Upon closer inspection, the Chiefs have 31 of the 38-man squad returning from 2017. Coach Colin Cooper brings a wealth of knowledge, having guided the Hurricanes to five playoffs in his eight seasons at the helm in the capital.

    For the past seven years, Cooper has mentored Taranaki, winning both the Premiership title and Ranfurly Shield.

    The Chiefs have built a reputation for abrasive forward play and that won’t change next year. Kane Hames, Nepo Laulala, Nathan Harris, Brodie Retallick, Dominic Bird, Liam Messam and Sam Cane form the basis of a very solid front eight.

    Atunaisa Moli and Aidan Ross are improving all the time with the former producing a powerhouse display for the Barbarians against the All Blacks and the later noted for his excellent scrum technique.

    Loosies Lachlan Boshier, Mitchell Karpik and Taleni Seu are young, hungry and talented.

    Who will play first-five is the biggest question the Chiefs have to resolve.

    It’s likely Damian McKenzie will suit up in the ten jersey. The diminutive All Black has played pivot in the past, but do the Chiefs lose some spark with McKenzie not in the space fullback provides?

    Damian McKenzie Waikato Chiefs Super Rugby 2015

    (AAP Image/Dan Peled)

    The other options are Damian’s brother Marty McKenzie, a journeyman by contrast and New Zealand Under-20 representative Tiaan Falcon. Falcon is a gifted attacker but didn’t play fly-half in the NPC.

    If McKenzie moves inward, Sam McNicol, Shaun Stevenson and Solomon Alaimalo are the fullback options. Stevenson appears to be the strongest of the three candidates with Alaimalo lacking a long boot and McNicol prone to injury.

    On the subject of injury, halfback Brad Weber makes a welcome return after a broken leg.

    With no obvious back-ups to Aaron Smith and TJ Perenara in the All Blacks at present, Weber has an excellent chance with a strong showing to add to his solitary Test cap.

    Te Toiroa Tahuriorangi has been recruited from the Hurricanes. Tahuriorangi is a talented, but temperamental performer and will have to prove his worth to resist the challenge of Jonathan Taumateine, a young prospect with similar attributes and faults.

    Internationals Tim Nanai-Williams, Anton Lienert-Brown and Charlie Ngatai present the Chiefs with real strength in the midfield while Regan Verney and Levi Aumua are interesting additions.

    Verney is a 25-year-old, originally from New Plymouth, who was dabbling in league, union and building until he got a break with the Wellington Lions in the NPC this season and grasped the chance with both arms.

    Verney isn’t big in stature, but deceptively strong.

    Aumua is the opposite – a monster of a man. The 23-year-old Samoan has played Top 14 rugby in France and showed destructive form for Tasman at times in the NPC.

    The Chiefs have the cattle to push for the title again, but how quickly their preferred halves duo settle will have a major bearing on how successful that pursuit will be.