Rugby: Chiefs squad all over the experienced spectrum after mass departures

By Kris Shannon

While there are of course exceptions in Dave Rennie's extended 40-man squad, there exists a divide as the Chiefs deal with their highest personnel turnover in four years. Photo / Christine Corneg
While there are of course exceptions in Dave Rennie's extended 40-man squad, there exists a divide as the Chiefs deal with their highest personnel turnover in four years. Photo / Christine Corneg

To wear a Chiefs jersey in the 2016 Super Rugby season, it almost seems a player must tick one of two boxes: be a debutant or an All Black.

While there are of course exceptions in Dave Rennie's extended 40-man squad, there exists a definite divide as the Chiefs deal with their highest personnel turnover in four years.

With the full group heading away on a week-long camp next week, 12 players who have encountered the All Blacks environment will mix with 14 new faces to forge a squad all over the experienced spectrum.

Whether those numbers can add to a fifth consecutive playoff place remains to be seen but, ahead of their pre-season opener against the Waratahs in four weeks, Sam Cane liked what he saw when assessing the mix of the squad.

"I think we've got a really well-balanced squad and it's going to prove an exciting team," said the new co-captain.

"We may not have guys who are overly old but we've got quite a few guys who have actually tasted the All Black environment, even if it wasn't for that long.

"That's great because we've got guys who know they're right on the fringe, so they'll be coming in and working bloody hard to get up there. And we've got guys who are first-year in Super Rugby and they're pushing guys like myself who have been here a little bit longer."

Cane, Brodie Retallick and Tawera Kerr-Barlow form a trio of Chiefs who helped the All Blacks defend the Rugby World Cup, while the likes of Aaron Cruden, Hika Elliot and Stephen Donald add to an experienced core accounting for the absences of Liam Messam and Sonny Bill Williams.

While that pair will eventually return to Ruakura after chasing Olympic gold - and Williams may even be available at a pinch this season - it's all the overseas departures that saw so many new recruits required. James Lowe is the sole returning outside back, after Tom Marshall, Hosea Gear, Bryce Heem and Tim Nanai-Williams all headed offshore, while Ben Tameifuna and locking duo Matt Symons and Mike Fitzgerald created a few holes to fill in the forwards.

The last time the franchise was in such a state of flux came at the beginning of the Rennie era in 2012, a campaign that produced the Chiefs' maiden Super Rugby title. And while there are too many variables in the expanded competition for any bold predictions, Cane was confident some of his callow teammates would be ready to make meaningful contributions.

"I was one of the new kids on the block in 2012 and we've got guys here in similar positions now," he said. "Hopefully, by the end of the year, a few of these new boys will be stepping up as starters and people will know a lot more about them."

Two recruits are already known quantities, with Crusaders duo Dominic Bird and Nepo Laulala set to slot straight into the starting XV, while the debutants will include former Warrior Glen Fisiiahi, Auckland standout Mitch Karpik and New Zealand under-20 captain Atu Moli.

"The way we've all bonded already has been good for us," said co-captain Aaron Cruden.

"Hopefully that continues throughout the season.

"It's going to need to if we want to be right up there come the end," Cruden said.

- NZ Herald

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