Super Rugby Pacific: Chiefs reaping rewards of good health, selection consistency in unbeaten start

Chiefs coach Clayton McMillan is clearly relishing his unblemished record atop Super Rugby Pacific standings after five rounds.

When so-called experts put forward their pre-season prognostications for the 2023 competition, most probably anticipated a repeat of last year's final between the six-time defending champion Crusaders and the pipped-at-the-post challenger Blues.

At best, the Chiefs - third in the 2022 regular season and beaten in the semis - qualified as afterthoughts, but they wasted no time overturning that assessment, toppling the Crusaders in their season-opener and adding four more scalps in ensuing weeks.

The performance hasn't always been pretty, but they are now the only unbeaten side left, as they approach another season-defining encounter against their northern neighbours on Saturday.  

McMillan is clear on where he has seen the improvements this campaign.

"It certainly helps that we haven't had a sh*tload of injuries," he reflected. "We've had our fair share.

"We've struggled in the midfield... we've done exceptionally well, but it's obviously hurt us, because we haven't been able to rotate the two guys that have clocked up big minutes.

"Consistency in selection, an ounce of luck with injuries, a good pre-season... I think we've got continuity of staff, so there's a lot of good stuff that we've been able to produce over the last couple of years that mean our starting point has been accelerated.

"We've seen the fruits of that labour in the first part of the competition."

In recent years, the Chiefs have been devastated by injury, forcing them to dig deep into their squad. While that hasn't helped in the short term, that dire need has helped prepare fringe players for bigger roles in the future.

Anton Lienert-Brown suffers an ankle sprain against Crusaders
Anton Lienert-Brown suffers an ankle sprain against Crusaders. Photo credit: Getty Images

Probably the biggest casualty so far has been All Blacks midfielder Anton Lienert-Brown, who sat out most of last season with a shoulder injury and has been sidelined by an ankle sprain since the season-opener.

He's still a couple of weeks away from a return, while fellow international Quinn Tupaea will miss the season altogether, as he recovers from knee damage suffered during Darcy Swain's illegal cleanout against Australia last September.

In their absence, Alex Nankivell has continued to enhance his reputation, but McMillan must rely on a raw combination of Rameka Poihipi and and Daniel Rona against the Blues.

The relative lack of injuries has had a roll-on effect on the form of Chiefs stars Sam Cane, Brodie Retallick and Damian McKenzie, who have set the tone for teammates in their winning run.

After battling all manner of physical setbacks, Cane, 31, is back to his best to meet the challenge presented by Blues counterpart Dalton Papalii for his All Blacks No.7 jersey at this year's Rugby World Cup.

Sam Cane in action for the Chiefs.
Sam Cane in action for the Chiefs. Photo credit: Getty Images

'I think he's been performing exceptionally well and, to be fair, all our All Blacks have been playing well, which has played a big part in us getting off to a good start," insisted McMillan.

"They set the example at training, they set the example off the field and when it comes to the game, their experience really comes to the fore.

"You're either a little bit blind, or deaf and dumb, if you don't observe what an athlete operating at the highest level of the game is demonstrating. There are some really good learnings for our young men over the last couple of years, seeing those guys in action."

One of those soaking up the lessons is fullback Shaun Stevenson, whose irrepressible form has him knocking on the door of national selection.

"I'd be surprised if he wasn't in the conversation," said McMillan. "There are a number of guys who have received injuries that have advanced his cause, but he can only do what he can control - the other stuff is peripheral.

"Big boot, X-factor on attack, but it's probably his willingness to get into the combat areas of the game. I've seen a bit shift in him in that regard.

"Overall, he's a confident rugby player and when he's confident, he's dangerous."

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