Every day this week we will preview a different Kiwi Super Rugby team ahead of the competition kick-off this weekend. Today, the Chiefs.
The down low:
The Chiefs come into 2021 already with one positive aspect to their campaign; they can't finish worse than they did a year ago.
While they ended the 2020 season with an 0-8 record, their performances were better than their record showed; well, at least for the first half of the season. However, through injuries and their inability to close out games, they ended the season still waiting for their first Super Rugby Aotearoa win.
Despite the miserable record, there were some bright spots. Young lock Tupou Vaa'i emerged as one of the best young players in the country and ended the year as an All Black, while flanker Lachlan Boshier's stocks rose thanks in large part to his abilities at the breakdown. The two shape up as key contributors this season too, as the Chiefs look to put 2020 well behind them. Clayton McMillan takes the reins this year on an interim basis in the absence of Warren Gatland - who is expected to be away with the British and Irish Lions.
While it's a largely unchanged roster in terms of potential starters, there will be some competition for the first five-eighth jersey and on the wings, while players returning from injury means added competition for spots elsewhere – with the No 8 jersey an area of particular interest.
With All Blacks experience in the form of Atu Moli, Angus Ta'avao, Nathan Harris, Vaa'i, Sam Cane and Luke Jacobson in the pack, and Brad Weber, Te Toiroa Tahuriorangi, Damian McKenzie and Anton Lienert-Brown in the backline, the Chiefs have plenty of punch in their line up to make some noise in the competition.
Defining factor: Loose trio
New year, same story for the Chiefs. A formidable loose trio has been their calling card for some time, and 2021 won't be any different. Cane is a sure starter, with Jacobson, Boshier, Pita Gus Sowakula and Mitchell Brown the candidates to fill the other two positions – though Brown will likely find himself at lock for at least some of the campaign.
Sowakula has made himself known as a battering ram on attack from the back of the scrum, with his hard-running style and nose for the try line an asset from the set piece. However, it seems likely that it's an asset best used off the bench. Jacobson has previously mentioned his desire to get some reps in the No 8 jersey at Super Rugby level, while Boshier's breakout season in 2020 demands a spot in the starting side. Both players are dominant, physical tacklers and have the shown their prowess at the breakdown with their ability to get over the ball and secure extra possessions.
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With Cane leading the way, the loose trio will be vital to the success of the Chiefs in 2021, laying the platform for the backs on attack and fronting up on the defensive end. If there's a group of flankers in the competition who thrive off the physical side of the game more than their competition, it's this one.
Positional battle: First five-eighth
Kaleb Trask shapes up as the first-choice No 10 to start the season, but with Bryn Gatland coming into the fold for 2021 there will be pressure on Trask to perform or risk losing his spot. Gatland comes in off another impressive showing for North Harbour in the Mitre 10 Cup, and Chiefs fans will remember him kicking the winning drop goal for the Highlanders against their team early last season. Gatland is a solid option, though has never been the type of playmaker that can put the team on his shoulders and carry them home at Super Rugby level. Still only 25 years old though, there's no reason he can't take that next step if Trask gives him the chance.
Under-the-radar prospect: Josh Lord
For those who watched Taranaki play in the past Mitre 10 Cup season, tipping Lord as one to watch won't be all that surprising. A strong young lock who tackles with intent, runs the ball hard, has some passing ability and is a strong option at the set piece, there's a lot to be excited about by that small sample size. In a time where good locks seem to be at a premium, Lord finds himself in a system of competing youngsters – with Vaa'i, Naitoa Ah Kuoi and Lachlan McWhannell all below the age of 23. Vaa'i showed in 2020 what can happen when an opportunity presents itself, and it could only take a similar situation for Lord to stake his claim to a consistent role.
Ins and outs
The Chiefs have lost some big names over the past year, but the majority of those were already confirmed to be leaving before last season ended. It was known that the likes of Tyler Ardron, Michael Allardice and Aaron Cruden were venturing offshore for different opportunities. The surprise exit over the off-season was prop Nepo Laulala, who shifted north to join almost every other All Blacks prop at the Blues. In their place, the Chiefs have invested in young talent, and added a couple of veteran backs to add some depth to their roster.
In: Sione Mafileo, Josh Lord, Kaylum Boshier, Simon Parker, Xavier Roe, Bryn Gatland, Rivez Reihana, Rameka Poihipi, Jonah Lowe, Chase Tiatia.
Out: Aaron Cruden (Japan), Tiaan Falcon (Japan), Nepo Laulala (Blues), Michael Allardice (Japan), Tyler Ardron (France), Tumua Manu (France), Solomon Alaimalo (Highlanders).
There's no reason the Chiefs can't be the surprise package of the competition this season. For the most part of last season they didn't play like an 0-8 team, and they will only build on that. With the likes of Cane, Boshier, Brown and Jacobson leading the way, they're going to be formidable up front, and have strike options at the back. While not a team to write off, consistency was an issue last season and could well be again.