Patrick McKendry

Patrick McKendry is a rugby writer for the Herald.

Rugby: Chiefs seek centres of excellence

Revolving door policy under the spotlight as defending champions seeking winning combinations

Just as happened last year, Aaron Cruden has been an ever-present at first-five for the Chiefs, but a revolving door policy has existed outside him.

Is this why the backline has appeared a lot more disjointed than during their sweep to the title in 2012?

Bundee Aki and Tim Nanai-Williams, Charlie Ngatai and Nanai-Williams, Andrew Horrell and N-W, Aki and Richard Kahui, Kahui and Ngatai, Kahui and N-W - the second-five and centre positions have been constantly changing in terms of personnel and combination.

You can get away with tinkering when you're winning, but scrutiny is a byproduct of poor performances and defeats. After successive losses to the Reds and Waratahs, the spotlight is on the selection policies of coaches Dave Rennie, Wayne Smith and Tom Coventry for the first time in their reign.

The departure of Sonny Bill Williams to league has left a large hole in the midfield but the Chiefs have plenty of talented individuals capable of doing a job in the No12 jersey, and maybe the willingness to give everyone a go before settling on the best combination is part of the problem.

Kahui is back from his latest shoulder problem better than ever, and should be a shoo-in for his favoured centre position, but was used at second-five in the loss to the Waratahs in Sydney last weekend. The coaches wanted him closer to the action in order to create forward momentum, and he has been named there again for tomorrow night's match against the Sharks at Waikato Stadium.

With Nanai-Williams named at centre to face the Sharks, the Chiefs are once again changing their midfield. It will be their sixth different combination in nine games.

Even with the forwards not providing the same platform as they did last season, the Chiefs have the backline talent to ask serious questions of any team. It's not that they are failing to breach defences, either. They made enough breaks against the Reds to win the game, but a lack of continuity - read far too many errors - stopped the attacks dead.

In contrast, their Australian opponents over the past fortnight have been far more clinical.

If the backline fails to gel against the Sharks, what then? The coaches would do well to let combinations bed in before making another change.

Nanai-Williams looked brilliant in the unfamiliar centre position at the start of the season before slipping off (he has had a groin problem, too) recently. With the class of Kahui inside him, he is due for an extended run in the No 13 jersey.

Horrell's ankle sprain while playing at fullback in Sydney could rule him out of the rest of the season.

Aki and Ngatai, relatively new to this level, could be better in impact roles.

Captain Craig Clarke's return to lock will boost the forwards hugely and it appears the coaches have lost patience with prop Ben Tameifuna, the big No 3 dropped to the reserves bench. He was unstoppable in scoring the try against the Waratahs which gave his side the lead, but it was his missed tackle on replacement frontrower John Ulugia which allowed the home team to win. Tameifuna has had weight issues over the off season and still appears to be struggling with his fitness. Michael Kainga gets the nod at tighthead, his first start of the season.

A finger injury to No 8 Fritz Lee means Nick Crosswell gets a rare start, with Sam Cane rested. The rotation policy has struck again at halfback, Augustine Pulu preferred over Brendon Leonard.

Chiefs v Sharks
Hamilton, tomorrow, 7.35pmGareth Anscombe

Chiefs: Lelia Masaga, T. Nanai-Williams, Richard Kahui, A. Tikoirotuma, Aaron Cruden, Augustine Pulu, Nick Crosswell, Tanerau Latimer, Liam Messam, Brodie Retallick, Craig Clarke (c), Michael Kainga, M. Schwalger, Toby Smith
Reserves: Rhys Marshall, Ben Tameifuna, Michael Fitzgerald, Sam Cane, Brendon Leonard, Bundee Aki, Charlie Ngatai.

Sharks: Riaan Viljoen, Odwa Ndungane, Francois Steyn, Meyer Bosman, Piet Lindeque, Patrick Lambie, Charl McLeod, Lubabalo Mtembu, Jean Deysel (c), Derick Minnie, P. du Toit, Anton Bresler, Jannie du Plessis, Craig Burden, Wiehahn Herbst
Reserves: Kyle Cooper, Danie Mienie, Franco van der Merwe, Keegan Daniel, Marcell Coetzee, Cobus Reinach, S'bura Sithole.

- NZ Herald

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