Patrick McKendry

Patrick McKendry is a rugby writer for the Herald.

Rugby: Chiefs welcome back trio of senior players

They are flying high in the New Zealand conference and the Chiefs are about to be strengthened by the return from injury of three key players.

Centre Richard Kahui, halfback Brendon Leonard and fullback Robbie Robinson have been training hard at the Chiefs' headquarters after failing to make the trip to South Africa, and all three will come into the frame for Friday night's match against the Highlanders.

Assistant coach Wayne Smith said the trio, all of whom have yet to play this season, would prompt real competition for places in what was an extremely tight turnaround for his team before the match at Waikato Stadium. The Chiefs arrived back from the Republic late on Sunday and had a recovery day yesterday.

"We've got some fresh players who didn't come [to South Africa] who have been training their butts off in Hamilton," Smith said. "There's a huge competition for selection now, I don't think too many people have really claimed their position yet."

Smith said the Chiefs coaches had viewed training footage of former All Black pair Kahui (shoulder) and Leonard (cheekbone), as well as rising force Robinson (foot and groin) while in South Africa.

"We've got a fair idea of how they've been going ... and they're looking pretty good."

Smith also had positive news on co-captain Liam Messam, who celebrated his 100th match for the Chiefs in the 35-24 victory over the Kings in Port Elizabeth, but was left nursing a swollen ankle afterwards.

"I saw him today and he looks good," said Smith. "He's got no limp or anything. I think he'll be 100 per cent."

The concerns of the Chiefs, second overall on the table and with a two-point lead over their nearest New Zealand rivals the Blues, are probably trifling compared with their next opponents the Highlanders, who have have been cursed, once again, by injury. Jamie Joseph's men have also failed to notch a win this season.

Smith acknowledged his team's work at the breakdown wasn't good enough, but said the issues went beyond that.

"There are further concerns, probably. Our physicality one on one - we're a wee bit high both on attack and defence. Our cleanouts are a bit like our defence, we're okay but not exceptional. We've got to address that.

"There is a tendency for the guys to infringe at the breakdown, rather than just back our defence, for example. That's a concern, that's a mindset-attitude thing and we've got to make changes otherwise we're not going to win. It's critical. The main thing is entry [to the breakdown], getting entry legally and keeping your hands off the ball.

"They are pretty simple things."

As for the lack of preparation time for their next game, Smith said his team had faced similar travel challenges and succeeded.

"We did it last year against the Hurricanes ... and the guys really fronted [in a 33-14 win] so we've just got to make sure we do all the physical things well but we get the attitude and mindset right.

"As coaches we've got to make sure we keep it simple for the players and just front up mentally and physically on Friday."

He said No8 Ross Filipo was scheduled for an MRI scan on his knee injury yesterday. The initial diagnosis was an ACL injury which would rule him out for the rest of the season.

- APNZ

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