Patrick McKendry

Patrick McKendry is a rugby writer for the Herald.

Rugby: Big mission as Aki steps in for SBW

Midfield pairing lighter than usual but very, very quick, says coach.

Bundee Aki has been given the No 12 jersey vacated by Sonny Bill Williams for the Chiefs' opener against the Highlanders in Dunedin tomorrow night.

If that's not enough, the Counties 22-year-old will mark his debut by attempting to close down All Black Ma'a Nonu in what will be a high-pressure environment under the roof at the Forsyth Barr Stadium.

Williams' departure and Richard Kahui's shoulder injury have robbed the Chiefs of size in the midfield. Converted wing Tim Nanai-Williams, another Counties player, will play centre and is, like Aki, a relative lightweight, size-wise.

"If you compare Bundee and Tim Nanai-Williams versus Sonny Bill Williams and Richard Kahui last year, they are a few inches shorter," admitted Chiefs coach Dave Rennie. "But they have different skillsets and are both very, very quick. That's their point of difference so it's going to be a hell of a match-up."

Apart from Kahui, Rennie is also missing halfback Brendon Leonard (cheek bone) and fullback Robbie Robinson and midfielder Andrew Horrell (both foot injuries).

Charlie Ngatai, a midfield signing from the Hurricanes, left the field against the Reds a fortnight ago with a groin injury, but has recovered sufficiently to be named on the bench.

The Chiefs were rocked by injuries after their first round loss to the Highlanders in Hamilton last season. This time they have come a little earlier.

"We only lost Andrew this time last week," Rennie said. "He's out for probably another month. Robbie has had issues with his foot for a while now and it's been slow going, same with Richard's shoulder. Obviously when we selected our team a few months back they were going to be a big part of our starting group but we've got a lot of depth and flexibility in our group.

"We picked four midfielders and we wouldn't have thought we'd be starting with Tim but he did a great job for us against the Hurricanes last weekend and we think he can do the same again this week."

In another departure from the norm, former Blues first-five Gareth Anscombe has been named at fullback.

"We see him as a 10," Rennie said. "We've talked to him about the value of playing more than one position. If you look at someone like Beauden Barrett, he got an All Black opportunity based on the fact that he can play multiple positions. It's good for Gareth, he's quick enough to play on the wing, he's quick enough to play at the back ... he can expose teams from a broken field point of view."

Wing Patrick Osborne, a signing from Canterbury, will also make his Super rugby debut. Rhys Marshall, a hooker from Hawkes Bay who has yet to play in ITM Cup, is in line to make his from the reserves bench.


Chiefs v Highlanders

Forsyth Barr Stadium, Dunedin

Tomorrow 7.35pm

Chiefs: Gareth Anscombe, Patrick Osborne, Tim Nanai-Williams, Bundee Aki, Asaeli Tikoirotuma, Aaron Cruden, Tawera Kerr-Barlow, Fritz Lee, Sam Cane, Liam Messam, Brodie Retallick, Craig Clarke (c), Ben Afeaki, Hika Elliot, Pauliasi Manu. Reserves: Rhys Marshall, Ben Tameifuna, Michael Fitzgerald, Tanerau Latimer, Augustine Pulu, Charlie Ngatai, Lelia Masaga.


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