By Chris Rattue
It looked as though a game of mid-week country football might be on.
Hundreds of people, many of them schoolkids, were swarming around the Waiuku rugby club's ground.
But this was no pickup game. In the centre of the huddle was a Chiefs rugby squad, aiming to train their way back into contention in a Super 12 competition which at the moment seems to be slipping them by.
Waiuku - close to Pukekohe and a 40-minute drive from central Auckland - may not have produced a flood of Counties players but it has been the base for two of the union's finest in the last couple of decades.
Longtime Waiuku No 8 Alan Dawson was an exceptional leader, his double-century of appearances placing him at the top of the Counties leader-board.
And at those quaint gatherings known as the after-match function, there was never a more humorous speaker among the captains of provincial rugby.
The other recent stalwart of Waiuku is Jim Coe, who cut his teeth before the open professional game as a rangy lock or flanker, and who survived long enough into the money era to make some appearances in the Super 12 for the Blues.
But the club ground and its small grandstand are unlikely to have hosted such a high-priced and talented mob as the Chiefs, who were the central attraction at a country-style training session yesterday.
The Chiefs may play at some of the biggest rugby venues in the world, but the rules are a bit different in places like Waiuku.
Late in training, Walter Little barely had enough of a runway among a horde of kids as he attempted a goalkick from the sideline.
Chiefs coach Ross Cooper tried to guide another swarm of youngsters, who thought the training run was over, back to the sideline as he concluded the session.
Another group of young spectators needed to move as the Chiefs pack shunted their scrum machine, gear transport trailer and attached four-wheel-drive vehicle during a brief scrummage session. The scrum work was conducted as adults and kids alike stood touching distance away from the grunting and groaning.
Cooper has instigated the "back to the people" approach over the past couple of years. One of the biggest crowds turned up in his home area of Waihi, the Chiefs train every Monday at Te Kauwhata, and they hold a number of practice sessions at schools.
"We've been really buoyed by the great crowd which turned out to see us today," said Cooper, whose side have lost heavily in Christchurch and narrowly at home to the Reds.
The lift the Chiefs really need has not yet arrived though. Jonah Lomu (knee), Royce Willis (groin) and Todd Miller (ribs) will not travel to Sydney today in preparation for Saturday night's match against a Waratahs side boasting a near-international pack, and fresh from a brilliant win over the Cats in South Africa.
With a bye next week, Cooper is confident the trio will be fit for their fourth match, against the Blues in Hamilton on March 26.
As well, Dylan Mika - promoted to start at No 8 ahead of Deon Muir - was nursing an ankle injury, Ian Jones has a hand problem and Muir is battling a rib injury, with all three needing checks, although they are expected to be fit to play.
Nick Holten will start in the loose forwards ahead of Muir, while Fijian captain and hooker Greg Smith, who is rated a better lineout thrower than John Akurangi, returns to the run-on pack.
The biggest injury though may be to the pride of their forwards, who have faced criticism, especially about their scrum.
Cooper said: "They are getting a bit disappointed at all the borax which is being poked at them. Maybe it will fire them up."
Chiefs: Matthew Cooper,Roger Randle, Scott McLeod, Bruce Reihana, Walter Little, Glen Jackson, Rhys Duggan; Dylan Mika, Glen Marsh, Ian Jones, Chresten Davis, Nick Holten, Lee Lidgard, Greg Smith, Michael Collins (captain).
Reserves: (from) Danny Lee, Blair Feeney, Mark Ranby; Deon Muir, Koula Tukino, Api Naevo, Paul Martin, John Akurangi.
Waratahs: Duncan McRae, Matt Dowling, Jason Jones-Hughes, Scott Staniforth, Nathan Grey, Christian Warner, Chris Whitaker; Tiaan Strauss, Stu Pinkerton, John Welborn, Tom Bowman, Michael Brial (captain), Andrew Blades, Phil Kearns, Richard Harry.
Reserves: Sam Payne, Manuel Edmonds, Darren Junee; Willie Ofahengaue, Daniel Manu, Cameron Blades, Tim Tavalea.
By Chris Rattue