As their clash against the soon-to-be extinct Sunwolves kicks off in Tokyo on Saturday, perhaps a bigger head scratcher is taking place back at Chiefs HQ in Hamilton.

The Chiefs — and New Zealand Rugby for that matter — should sit down and try to figure out a way to keep Aaron Cruden on these shores because it's no longer debatable. Both have missed a beat by not securing him for longer.

The services of the 31-year-old have proved invaluable over the course of Super Rugby's opening fortnight for the Chiefs who are back to playing some truly vintage rugby in their undefeated start.

Cruden's impact on the rest of what is still a reasonably young squad has also been palpable and it's been the perfect tonic to go alongside Warren Gatland. Collectively they were always destined to shape fortunes toward the better.


Cruden is enjoying his rugby and is clearly happier than he's been for some time. In the two rounds to start 2020 this team has looked more stable, more certain and have executed their play style in ways that was far too fleeting after Cruden left for the first time in 2017.

Cruden is enjoying his rugby and is clearly happier than he's been for some time. Photo / Michael Pulman
Cruden is enjoying his rugby and is clearly happier than he's been for some time. Photo / Michael Pulman

Yet it all feels like a fleeting moment in time that will soon be forgotten, because before we know it, Cruden will be departing for Japan at the end of the season to take up a deal with the Kobelco Steelers.

Oh well, it was fun while it lasted.

When Cruden does say sayonara to this team for the second time, are the Chiefs really going to be able to fill the void that will almost certainly be left?

The answer is no, just as it was last time.

It's not to take away from the potential that Kaleb Trask and Tiaan Falcon have in the No.10 jersey.

Both are clear and obvious fits in this position long-term. Falcon in particular has been unlucky with injury to start his time at this level.

Trask looked solid in his 40-minutes on debut against the Blues and will get another crack this weekend.


Both youngsters will have learned so much from working underneath the former All Black, but whether that's enough to provide some certainty at 1st V come 2021 remains to be seen.

But again, it's also worth noting that growing young talent and turning them into superstars isn't exactly unheard of in this region, either.

It's true that the fortunes of a side don't rest on the shoulders of one player alone, and when media does focus on single names rather than the collective, coaches tend to get grumpy.

But it simply doesn't negate the fact that, right now, by doing what he's doing on the field and hearing of his impact in the locker room, Cruden's impending departure is a disappointment and lost opportunity, both for the fans and the team itself.

If the Chiefs do go all the way and win Super Rugby this year, Cruden will likely have played a massive part in that. Just take a look at the opening two rounds.

His impact is just as big as the one Gatland is having, if not bigger.


If there was an opportunity to keep his services for longer, surely, it's one the Chiefs would've wanted to lock in place.

What's also ironic about all this is that when the one-year deal was originally reported, while never questioning what Cruden would bring back into the Chiefs environment, many quietly looked at his return as something of a waste of time and a poor use of the salary funds available.

Just two weeks into Super Rugby 2020, such a suggestion is farcical now.

If Cruden does decide to forgo his contractual obligations in Japan and signal a desire to stay, something that isn't unheard of with the biggest players, it must be something that New Zealand Rugby and the Chiefs are ready to pull out of the bag, even if that means getting him back here in 2022.

Yes, he will be 33, but it's already been shown that age is just a number.

If that does happen he wouldn't be staying for the money, but it might signal a bit of good fortune, however small, that the game in this country desperately needs right now.


Chiefs stick with Kaleb Trask for Sunwolves showdown

Kaleb Trask will get another chance to make a claim for future starts after being selected ahead of Tiaan Falcon for the Chiefs clash against the Sunwolves.

As expected, Warren Gatland named a Chiefs squad featuring several key changes for their round three encounter, putting their faith in Kaleb Trask to do the job at first five in what will be his second start.

Tiaan Falcon, the more experienced of the two and just back from injury, will get some game time but it will have to be off the bench.

Fans will also see the eagerly awaited Chiefs debut for a 2011 RWC-winning loosie Adam Thomson. The 37-year old starts at six in a loose forward trio that also features South African Dylan Nel who plays Super Rugby for the first time.

On the bench, the Chiefs have opted for utility Orbyn Leger who comes in as cover with no Sean Wainui in the match-day squad. Shaun Stevenson gets another opportunity to start on the right wing

Brad Weber will captain the side and Damian McKenzie has made the trip to Tokyo to start at fullback.

Brad Weber will captain the Chiefs against the Sunwolves in Japan on Saturday. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Brad Weber will captain the Chiefs against the Sunwolves in Japan on Saturday. Photo / Mark Mitchell

Some big names are missing this week, including in form first five Aaron Cruden who is resting, as well as All Blacks midfielder Anton Lienert-Brown and regular Chiefs captain Sam Cane who miss out as part of the All Black rest protocols.

The round three clash was always slated to be the ideal time for the Chiefs to look at getting more players from their squad some game time after two intense kiwi-derbies to start the season, games where the very best without injury were selected.

The two sides have met just three times since the Japanese club entered Super Rugby in 2016, with the Chiefs winning two of the three games, but the encounter of note has to be the shock victory that the Sunwolves recorded over the Chiefs in Hamilton last year.

In one of their better performances ever recorded, the 30-15 upset was described as 'the biggest shock in Super Rugby history' and also signalled one of the lowest points for the Chiefs under former coach Colin Cooper who would be given the axe at the conclusion of that season.

Warren Gatland says he expects the Sunwolves to be just as competitive this time round and that it's imperative the Chiefs build on their winning ways to start the season.

"We have started the season two from two and to continue this momentum it is important we rotate our squad", Gatland said.


"We have rested several players this weekend but this provides an opportunity for those who have been working hard over the pre-season to have some game time".

■ Michael Pulman is a freelance journalist based in Hamilton.

The Chiefs squad to take on the Sunwolves

• Aidan Ross (27)
• Bradley Slater (4)
• Atu Moli (40)
• Tyler Ardron (28)
• Michael Allardice (42)
• Adam Thomson*
• Lachlan Boshier (46)
• Dylan Nel**
• Brad Weber (C)(74)
• Kaleb Trask (1)
• Solomon Alaimalo (40)
• Alex Nankivell (24)
• Quinn Tupaea (2)
• Shaun Stevenson (45)
• Damian McKenzie (73)


• Samisoni Taukei'aho (24)
• Ross Geldenhuys (1)
• Reuben O'Neill**
• Naitoa Ah Kuoi (2)
• Mitchell Brown (35)
• Te Toiroa Tahuriorangi (34)
• Tiaan Falcon (3)
• Orbyn Leger (2)

() = Gallagher Chiefs caps in brackets
*denotes Gallagher Chiefs debut
**denotes Investec Super Rugby debut

• Sunwolves vs Gallagher Chiefs, Saturday February 15, 4.45pm (NZ time).