With Blues, Chiefs, Crusaders, Highlanders, Hurricanes and Moana Pasifika squads for the 2024 Super Rugby season; all named, Kiwis can finally relax and properly sit down for their off-season barbecues, golf outings and beach trips!
For those restless ones who will still think "rugby, rugby, rugby" all summer long though, there's a lot to make out of what the coaches have gone for. We'll run through each team, alphabetically, to make sense of the transfers and selections... and of course, what these mean!
Today's article, will be on the Chiefs, who represent the NPC sides from Waikato, Bay of Plenty and Taranaki, in the Super Rugby league.
Luke Jacobson (left, pictured with the All Blacks in Napier) will by vying for captaincy, as will Aidan Ross. Photo: Max Sharp.
Sione Ahio (Prop) - from Auckland
Kauvaka Kaivelata (Prop) - from Counties Manukau
Reuben O'Neill (Prop) - from Crusaders
Jimmy Tupou (Lock) - from Urayasu D-Rocks, Japan
Tom Florence (Flanker) - from New Orleans Gold, USA
Malachi Wrampling-Alec (Flanker) - from Waikato
Wallace Sititi (Number 8) - from North Harbour
Kaleb Trask (First-Five) - returning from loan at Mie Honda Heat
Daniel Rona (Midfielder) - upgraded to full contract from short-term deal
Liam Coombes-Fabling (Winger) - upgraded to full contract from short-term deal
Atu Moli (Prop) - to Western Force, Australia
John Ryan (Prop) - to Munster, Ireland
Angus Ta'avao (Prop) - to Blues
Laghlan McWhannell (Lock) - to Blues
Brodie Retallick (Lock) - to Kobelco Steelers, Japan
Sam Cane (Flanker) - on playing sabbatical at Tokyo Sungoliath, Japan
Pita Gus Sowakula (Number 8) - to ASM Clermont Auvergne, France
Brad Weber (Halfback) - to Stade Français, France
Bryn Gatland (First-Five) - to Kobelco Steelers, Japan
Rivez Reihana (First-Five) - to Crusaders
Alex Nankivell (Midfielder) - to Munster, Ireland
Ngane Punivai (Winger) - to Hurricanes
What do the transfers tell us?
Saying that the Chiefs have been gutted of experience, is putting it mildly. Nine of the twelve departing players are very experienced and in all cases, barring John Ryan (who got signed as a season-long injury cover for Angus Ta'avao after the collapse of Wasps), have certainly earned their coin offshore. What the Chiefs do have in their advantage though, is the retention of Clayton McMillan as the Head Coach. Having known of Retallick, Weber, Nankivell, Ryan and Gatland's impending exits prior to the end of the 2023 season, McMillan has rationalised all and opted for a true changing of the guard.
Epitomising this change of guard; are Sione Ahio and Kauvaka Kaivelata, who are both earning their first-ever Super Rugby contracts. Not only should the Blues be livid at their failure to sign numerous Moana Pasifika departures at prop, but they should also be livid at their failure to sign Ahio, who has been chipping away for a long time, but aged just 22. Kaivelata is also very promising, though their inexperience is off-set by Reuben O'Neill's return from injury. Having defied the odds in a battle against diabetes, to make it as a pro athlete, before going through the ringer whilst injured, shows true character from the 28-year-old.
Reuben O'Neill replaces departing prop Angus Ta'avao (pictured in 2022), who has signed to return to the Blues for the first time since 2015. Photo: Max Sharp.
Jimmy Tupou and Tom Florence, both well-known faces for Counties Manukau and Taranaki loyalists, have returned from offshore in great nick. Tupou will be valuable for his experience, in a young locking contingent, while Florence's pace from 7s and versatility, will make him a great bench option. Florence, himself aged 25, will be able to have some words to pass down to fellow incoming loose forwards; Sititi and Wrampling-Alec. While Wrampling-Alec is still 19 years old, he's been a standout at age grade level for some time, so could definitely improve even more. Sititi may not cover the absence of Pita Gus Sowakula in the lineout, but he'll certainly harden the breakdown as a jackal threat and showcase his low centre of gravity with ball-in-hand.
In the backs, not too much change is there, which will also be very good. The only real standout is how the club won't be stockpiling players at 10 anymore. Damian McKenzie and Josh Ioane are both experienced players, meaning Bryn Gatland is just simply a straight swap for Kaleb Trask, who returns from a season-long loan in Japan. Rivez Reihana's exit simply makes sense, with game time so hard to get.
While Alex Nankivell, like Gatland, is a gutting loss, at least the 8-9-10-12 axis will know what to expect. Daniel Rona debuted for the Chiefs in 2023, after Quinn Tupaea's Australia incident from 2022, that cruelly robbed him of a season. Rona is now a full member of the team, so that aforementioned axis will see exactly what they're getting from 13, should Anton Lienert-Brown be missing from a game. Liam Coombes-Fabling is also a straight swap for Ngane Punivai, he's had short-term deals with the Highlanders in 2022 and Chiefs in 2023, so will now be stoked he can get off the building site to pick up some different tools in the gym!
The fact that props, flankers and wingers, are positions picked on form, means that the Chiefs are well-covered for the continuation of their tactics. Trask knows the system, while Te Toiroa Tahuriorangi's return was as a season-long replacement last year, there's no added stress of getting a new halfback up to scratch.
A Possible First-Choice Lineup
Aidan Ross (C)
Naitoa Ah Kuoi
Shaun Stevenson (left) made his test debut for the All Blacks in 2023, wearing the 14 jersey against Australia at Forsyth Barr Stadium. Photo: Max Sharp.
With Scott Robertson, Leon MacDonald and Jason Holland all respectively leaving the Crusaders, Blues and Hurricanes; at the same time as Moana Pasifika getting a second Head Coach in three seasons, it's time for the Chiefs and Highlanders to strike when the other four Kiwi teams are vulnerable.
Brad Weber's minute-of-silence interview, with Sky Sports in the 2023 Super Rugby final, will not have been forgotten. Neither will Sam Cane's red card from the 2023 Rugby World Cup final. These players will be playing for their two departed captains, neither of whom ended the last season the way they wanted.
With just one back for their 2024 season, absent from the 2023 season, the Chiefs have arguably retained the most cohesion out of any other team in the competition, which will enable an overall build towards a greater TWI ratio.
Will they have the very best backline? Probably not. None of their halfbacks have been to a World Cup, Damian McKenzie and Anton Lienert-Brown got benched for the final, Emoni Narawa is eyeing up a return from injury, while Shaun Stevenson's defensive mishaps have been well-documented since his debut season in 2016.
But what the Chiefs will deliver to us, are tried-and-true combinations, who won't need to do as much team-building. Kaylum Boshier is effectively a like-for-like replacement of Sam Cane, while the departure of Pita Gus Sowakula, might even give a bit more certainty to Luke Jacobson, who knows that Samipeni Finau is an out-and-out Jerome Kaino-esque beast of a blindside. Four of the regular front-rowers are all knocking on the door for spots in Scott Robertson's starting lineup, while Tyrone Thompson will also be in the conversation very soon.
But most importantly... the locks. Those who don't rate Tupou Vaa'i and Josh Lord, aren't looking at the same wide-eyed kids from 2020. Lord is 115kg, while Vaa'i is 118kg. Keep in mind the fact that they were the first two All Blacks to be born in the 21st century as well. They've long been groomed for their roles as the new Whitelock-Retallick combination and are wholeheartedly aware.
While Lord has had injury troubles, he had just a single bad game in 2023; the Twickenham disaster against South Africa, he looked like a player who hasn't missed a beat; while he's now got NPC-winning form to carry over to the next level, after stringing minutes together with Taranaki. He's a smart player and probably the best I've ever interviewed so far, he'll learn from what happened in England.
Vaa'i on the other hand, should he dodge the pitfalls of past prodigies like James O'Connor, Paddy Jackson, Jack Goodhue, or Thomas Waldrom; is an All Black captain in-waiting if he can avoid the injuries, off-field issues or complacency that wrecked the careers of the young prodigies just listed. He's got all the qualities, plus he's shown them at test level against the USA, Argentina, Australia and Japan already. Vaa'i has the bulk for the scrum, handling to evolve with tactics over time and of course, more test caps (25) than his age (23). Perhaps most importantly, Vaa'i knows he's got the potential for greatness, he doesn't have the mental weakness that could hold him back from achieving his lofty ambitions. The last thing for Vaa'i to tick off, is consistent game time to carry over from Super Rugby to test rugby, then that'll be all she wrote.
Tupou Vaa'i (centre), was the Head Prefect and 1st XV captain for Wesley College, Auckland, in 2017. The school has produced 12 All Blacks. Photo: Max Sharp.
This Chiefs side has everything it takes to lift a Super Rugby title for the first time since 2013, but perhaps even more importantly, the motivation to get it done, after coming so narrowly close 10 years after their previous title.
Potential End-of-Season Ladder Position: 1st Place
Potential MVP: Tupou Vaa'i
Potential Top Try-Scorer: Emoni Narawa
Potential Top Points-Scorer: Damian McKenzie