Rugby: Promising pair set for long-awaited Chiefs debuts

By Kris Shannon

Mitch Karpik is bringing his flowing blond locks to the Super Rugby field for the first time. Photo / photosport.nz
Mitch Karpik is bringing his flowing blond locks to the Super Rugby field for the first time. Photo / photosport.nz

Chiefs fans would be forgiven for forgetting about the recruitment of Mitch Karpik and Nepo Laulala.

Signed by Dave Rennie's side in 2015, both men saw their maiden Super Rugby campaigns scuppered before they began, suffering season-ending injuries in 2016 without playing a competitive match.

But after what must have been an interminable wait for supporters and players alike, Karpik and Laulala will on Friday night in Dunedin make their maiden appearance for the Chiefs.

The pair is part of a quintet of debutants named in the squad to tackle the Highlanders in the season-opener, joining a team with plenty of top-level experience elsewhere on the park.

There's the relatively fresh face of Damian McKenzie at fullback and the old hand of Liam Messam at the base of the scrum. There's a locking duo - Dominic Bird and Brodie Retallick - and a halves pair - Tawera-Kerr Barlow and Aaron Cruden - that can match it with the best in the competition.

And then there's Karpik and Laulala, two young men who will be satisfied to merely take the field.

Karpik won't quite be allowed to ease his way into action, though, given the unenviable task of filling the boots of Sam Cane. The Chiefs co-captain has been battling an ankle injury in pre-season and, while getting closer every week, he has yet to build his fitness and contact work to the desired levels.

But the Chiefs certainly found a silver lining to Cane's injury cloud, being able to finally hand a second chance to Karpik, the 21-year-old Aucklander whose knee injury last February spoiled his first opportunity in Super Rugby.

"We're all pretty excited about letting young Karpik loose," said Chiefs assistant coach Neil Barnes. "He's very enthusiastic and he's quite an aggressive man on the paddock. We're going to lose a little bit [without Cane] but I wouldn't think too much when you see Mitch run."

Barnes also hailed Karpik's physicality and that attribute is sure to be one shared by Laulala. It's easy to overlook, given his own devastating knee injury ruled him out of all rugby last year, but Laulala was once one of the most promising props in the country.

In 2015 he played the first of his four tests for the All Blacks following a stand-out Super Rugby season for the Crusaders, and Barnes was backing the 25-year-old to eventually return to those heights.

"It's massive," Barnes said of Laulala's return. "But it's going to take him a while to get back to his best. He's only had one or two games of footy since he's been back on deck, so I don't expect too much.

"But he's a powerful brute and I'm really looking forward to the [scrum] contest and seeing him grow throughout the season. Hopefully he can get back into the top level again."

Also set for a Chiefs debut on Friday is Taranaki second-five Johnny Faauli, while hooker Samisoni Taukei'aho and halfback Jonathan Taumateine will make their bows off the bench.

Chiefs team to play Highlanders at Forsyth Barr Stadium on Friday night:

1. Kane Hames
2. Hika Elliot
3. Nepo Laulala
4. Dominic Bird
5. Brodie Retallick
6. Taleni Seu
7. Mitchell Karpik
8. Liam Messam
9. Tawera Kerr-Barlow
10. Aaron Cruden (c)
11. James Lowe
12. Johnny Faauli
13. Anton Lienert-Brown
14. Toni Pulu
15. Damian McKenzie

Reserves: Samisoni Taukei'aho, Siegfried Fisi'ihoi, Atu Moli, Mitchell Brown, Lachlan Boshier, Jonathan Taumateine, Tim Nanai-Williams, Shaun Stevenson

- NZ Herald

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