Time for Chiefs' young guns
Back then, it had been three years since the Chiefs had last made the finals (though few like to remember the 61-17 drubbing the Chiefs suffered at the hooves of the Bulls in their final match in Pretoria). It was also only the Chiefs’ third ever appearance in the finals series with their first appearance being in 2004 when they were buddle out in the semi-finals by the Brumbies, who went on to win the competition.
Including that 2012 season, 2018 marked the seventh year in a row that the Chiefs had made at least the elimination finals of Super Rugby without fail.
It’s increasingly looking like 2019 could be the year that ends the Chiefs’ stunning run of finals appearances.
Last year, Colin Cooper’s reign as new head coach got off to a reasonable start, guiding the team to a top-four placing, eventually succumbing to the Hurricanes in Wellington.
A few less experienced players were given game time – players who could well be long-term fixtures in the squad. Solomon Alaimalo’s star burned the brightest, with his speed and offloading ability prompting many to suggest he could be in the frame for an All Blacks call up. Luke Jacobson also made his first appearances at Super Rugby level and will likely be the long-term replacement to stalwart Liam Messam.
Perhaps most impressive was the emergence of a number of quality props.
As is tradition, the Chiefs were hit very hard by injuries. The front row, in particular, took quite a knocking. Mitchell Graham wasn’t sighted all season after dealing with lingering problems from a horrific leg injury first suffered during the 2017 Brisbane 10s. Kane Hames also didn’t appear due to concussion symptoms. New front-rower Aidan Ross then had his season cut short in the early rounds of the competition after a teammate fell on his leg.
So emerged the unlikely pairing of Angus Ta’avao and Karl Tu’inukuafe.
Tu’inukuafe, on the other hand, had almost given up on professional rugby, working as a bouncer in Auckland.
By the end of the season, both players had represented the All Blacks.
It wasn’t an easy year for a new coach to navigate – but Cooper did reasonably well with the hand he was dealt. His appointment, however, had still raised many questions in the rugby community – and few were convinced he was the man for the job, even after the relatively successful 2018 season.
Cooper, after all, had already spent many years with a fairly well-stocked Hurricanes side and had not achieved much in the way of Super Rugby glory.
Since he had parted ways with the Hurricanes, Cooper had redeemed himself somewhat with the Taranaki provincial side – but his strong Taranaki ties perhaps caused even more ire. When Chiefs players were struck down with injury in 2018, they were often replaced with Taranaki players – many of who were not up to the task of Super Rugby.
Regardless, a spot in the finals in no way indicates a poor season. Cooper may not have necessarily silenced the doubters, but he at least quietened them down for another season.
2019, however, has seen questions once again raised about Cooper’s ability as a coach.
The Chiefs season started with three straight losses. Against the Highlanders, the Chiefs built up a reasonable lead going into the final quarter but even with a one-man advantage due to Sio Tompkinson’s yellow card, they somehow threw the game away. The Highlanders have only managed two other wins this season.
Week two saw the Chiefs absolutely belted in Canberra by a Brumbies side that has otherwise underperformed this year and with the third round of the year came perhaps the most embarrassing loss in the Chiefs’ almost 25-year history when they didn’t fire a shot against the Sunwolves at home. The Sunwolves have improved significantly in 2019, but they have nowhere near the same calibre of players at their disposal as the Chiefs.
Then came four reasonable results which, in some ways, have papered over many of the cracks in the Waikato-based team.
Coinciding with a return to form for Damian McKenzie (and a return to fullback for the diminutive playmaker), the Chiefs drew with the Hurricanes, slaughtered the Bulls in Pretoria, narrowly escaped with a win against the Jaguares and then came out trumps in their grudge match with the Blues.
That undefeated run saw the Chiefs drop out of the headlines; no longer were they doing quite as poorly as they had been at the start of the season, and the Highlanders were having significant issues of their own, drawing away some of the attention.
With the Chiefs’ most recent loss to the Lions coming in the same round as the Highlanders finally getting their third victory of the season, the Chiefs are now back to bottom of the New Zealandconference. Another run of losses could see Cooper facing the heat once more, so upcoming derby matches against the Highlanders and Hurricanes will be crucial to the coach’s fate.
The fact that, outside of Christchurch, no team is maintaining any real consistency in the competition will mean that it will be impossible to write off the Chiefs until much later in the season. Finishing only just short of the finals could be very possible if Cooper sticks to his guns and plays it safe.
This would likely be the worst possible outcome for the Chiefs.
If Cooper is to maintain his position, the onus should be placed on him to ensure that the Chiefs are well prepared for the seasons to come. 2019, at this point in time, is almost a write off already and development should be the focus moving forward.
McKenzie’s injury against the Blues will mean we don’t see him take the field again this season. Against the Lions, the Chiefs looked completely devoid of attacking options without McKenzie at fullback – this needs to be rectified.
There are some players in the Chiefs squad who are, in all reality, just filling gaps.
With Brad Weber, Te Toiroa Tahuriorangi, McKenzie, Anton Lienert-Brown and Solomon Alaimalo you have the makings of a very good backs division – but they need to be supplemented with some more rising stars.
Tumua Manu, playing in his first season of Super Rugby, has shown a lot of promise – but you have to wonder what guys like Bailyn Sullivan and Quinn Tupaea, who both shone for Waikato in their successful Mitre 10 Cup campaign, could be doing. Perhaps there’s no room in the midfield, but throw one on the wing to get some invaluable Super Rugby experience.
It’s a similar situation in the outside backs. Shaun Stevenson has been off-form this year and may well come right later in the season – but now’s the time to given a young player like Etene Nanai-Seturo the chance to show his talents off.
Nanai-Seturo has been restricted to the wing in 2019 – and under-20 commitments will mean he won’t always be available for the Chiefs – but let him have a run in his favoured position of fullback and see what he can do.
Ataata Moekiola has made some blockbusting runs on the wing, but how many seasons are the Chiefs likely to get out of the Japanese test representative? He needs plenty of development of his own and chances are he won’t hang around for too long. Whilst it’s fine to support the Tier-2 nations, New Zealand franchises should not be developing foreign players at the expense of their own.
The situation in the five-eighths should be hugely worrying for Chiefs fans. Marty McKenzie, whilst his determination can never be questioned, is simply not a Super Rugby level first five – and that’s been clear for a number of years. In 2017, he wasn’t even playing at 10 for Taranaki, with young Stephen Perofeta preferred and in 2018 injury kept him out for the whole season.
Likewise, Jack Debreczeni, who has had an awful run of injuries this year, is probably not a long-term solution for the Chiefs. In his limited game time with the team, he’s shown that he’s probably the best passer amongst the backs, but he never quite cut the mustard with the Rebels in Australia and it’s hard to imagine that he’s going to develop into a major force at 10 for the Chiefs.
There are no obvious solutions to the myriad of problems that the Chiefs have been having this year. Sometimes, things don’t always fall your way on the field – but the way in which the Chiefs have lost this season should be concerning for all. Colin Cooper still has plenty of time to prove that he’s up to being a Super Rugby coach – but he’s not going to do that by simply guiding the Chiefs to a midtable finish this season.
With a successful campaign likely off the cards for 2019, Cooper needs to throw caution to the wind and put his faith in the young players coming through the system. There’s no point in coasting to an average finish with journeymen who aren’t going to develop significantly further – it’s time to invest in the future.
By Tom Vinicombe, Rugbypass