By Tom Vinicombe for RugbyPass
Bench All Blacks played a big role in the Chiefs' come-from-behind win over the Blues in last weekend's Super Rugby opener, but the Chiefs may not have quite the same luxury against the Crusaders on Saturday.
The Chiefs have confirmed that they will have to cope without three All Blacks this week, with Damian McKenzie, Angus Ta'avao and Nepo Laulala all likely to miss the massive derby.
Infamous for their seemingly endless slew of injuries, the Chiefs entered the pre-season with almost all of their players fit and ready for the season. Importantly, their key All Blacks were all injury-free.
Then came the month from hell.
First, Nathan Harris was ruled out for the season due to a damaged rotator cuff.
Then, Damian McKenzie – who missed most of 2019 due to a ruptured ACL – was scratched before the game against the Blues due to a strained abductor, despite initially being named at fullback.
Finally, during last Friday's match, Nepo Laulala and Angus Ta'avao both left the park, forcing starting loosehead, Aidan Ross, to play the full 80 while Atu Moli was called upon to cover the tighthead.
"Because we were under pressure, we could've easily said, 'let's go to golden oldies' because we've used our two [designated] tightheads and both have picked up injuries," said head coach Warren Gatland following the win. "But we said no, [Atu Moli] has played there before and we didn't want to take that soft option."
"I thought he was brilliant for us. Someone who hasn't trained there a lot and hasn't been in the environment a huge amount probably got us out of a hole."
Gatland also didn't expect any repercussions out of the match.
"I don't think [the injuries] are massive. I think they've both taken knocks or dead legs so I don't think it's anything that's long term.
"In fairness to Angus, he said at halftime he wasn't 100%. He got a bit of a knock at training during the week and we brought Ryan Coxon up as cover, just in case he didn't get through the warmup, but he said he felt alright."
Despite Gatland's initial thoughts, it appears that the Chiefs will have to dig deep into their propping stocks this week.
Ta'avao is still dealing with concussion symptoms – which was presumably initially caused by the knock at last week's training, while Laulala is undergoing scans on his leg this week and is almost certainly not going to feature over the weekend.
That leaves Moli as the senior prop, while the likes of Ryan Coxon and Reuben O'Neill could be supported by any of Ross Geldenyhuys, Ollie Norris or Robb Cobb, who are on training contracts with the team.
McKenzie, who was expected to be available for Saturday, is now looking like an unlikely selection. His place was taken by Shaun Stevenson last week and would likely be called upon to start in the 15 jersey again against the Crusaders.
From starting the season with an almost full bill of health to now having to search high and low for fit players, January's injury-toll could have a major impact on the Chiefs' year ahead.