5:03am, 23 June 2022
For the past two seasons, it’s no secret that the Chiefs have struggled to field first-class talent on the wings.
The likes of Etene Nanai-Seturo, Jonah Lowe, Shaun Stevenson, Sean Wainui, Emoni Narawa, Chase Tiatia, Bailyn Sullivan, Quinn Tupaea and Alex Nankivell have all been given opportunities in the No 11 and No 14 jerseys, and the results have been a mixed bag to say the least.
While all of the above players have had moments of brilliance out wide, consistency has been a massive issue. Some of that comes down to injuries, which have certainly plagued the likes of Nanai-Seturo, Lowe and Stevenson’s Super Rugby careers to date, but the fact of the matter is that none of the Chiefs’ wing options really hold a candle to the best finishers around the country.
2022’s preferred combination of Nanai-Seturo and Lowe has shown promise over the past three years but you would be hard-pressed to call either player a deadly ball-runner.
Regardless of their merits, it’s not a combination Chiefs coach Clayton McMillan will be able to employ next season with Lowe now heading south to join the Highlanders on a three-year deal. Nanai-Seturo is also off-contract while the situations regarding Tiatia, Narawa and utility back Gideon Wrampling are not public.
As such, Stevenson is the only winger that has officially signed on with the Chiefs for 2023.
There will inevitably be some talent coming through the provincial competition this year that will catch a few eyes but before the NPC even kicks off, McMillan will be casting a glance over the riches stored away by some of the other Super Rugby sides around the country and assessing whether he can lure a few talented individuals to the Waikato.
While the Highlanders suffered a similar fate to the Chiefs this season, struggling to get consistent performances out of their outside backs, the Crusaders certainly have some young talent on their roster that might be interested in switching allegiances.
Men like Chay Fihaki and Kini Naholo have had few chances in the red and black jersey this year thanks to the abundance of All Blacks talent ahead of them in the pecking order while George Bridge is also off-contract following another title-winning season.
With Bridge losing his spot in the Crusaders starting line-up – and his place in the All Blacks wider squad – to Leicester Fainga’anuku, the 27-year-old may look for a change of scenery to reinvigorate his career.
Bridge is certainly not the dangerous ball-runner that the Chiefs are desperate for, but he’s a generally reliable operator either on the wing or at fullback and with some regular rugby under his belt, could well recapture the form that earned him a surprise place on the wing for New Zealand during the last Rugby World Cup.
Further north at the Hurricanes, either of Julian Savea or Salesi Rayais would be good buys for the Chiefs but with Wes Goosen departing overseas, Jason Holland will do everything he can to hold onto his senior wingers who still have one more season left to run on their current contracts.
That leaves the Blues – the side that rivals even the Crusaders for talent in the outside backs.
The abilities of Caleb Clarke and Mark Telea were already well known prior to 2022 but both have stepped up their games even further this season, with Clarke looking back to his best form following a disappointing 2021 and Telea one of Super Rugby Pacific’s deadliest players throughout the Blues’ campaign. At this stage, both players are all but guaranteed starters for their current team but with AJ Lam coming into his own this year, the three will all be vying for opportunities next season.
Head down State Highway 39, however, and any one of the trio would command a starting spot on the wing for the Chiefs.
The Crusaders have more than shown that it’s possible to juggle multiple players in one position and still hand everyone ample minutes and there’s no reason why the Blues can’t do the same – but there are never any guarantees. Clark and Telea are both off-contract following the 2022 season and should both be targets for McMillan – even if the chances of bringing either of them to Hamilton is slim at best. The safer money might be on trying to convince 23-year-old Lam that with two relatively young, relatively experienced wingers ahead of him in the pecking order at the Blues, his opportunity to press for higher honours would be considerably elevated in Chiefs country.
Of course, the other option in Auckland is Taranaki outside back Jacob Ratumaitavuki-Kneepkens, who the Chiefs attempted to recruit ahead of the 2021 season but missed out to their northern rivals.
Ratumaitavuki-Kneepkens managed eight appearances for the Blues this year, including four starts, but still sits behind Clarke, Telea and Lam as a wing option, and is also behind Stephen Perofeta and Zarn Sullivan in his preferred fullback role. At just 20 years of age, Ratumaitavuki-Kneepkens doesn’t need to be regularly starting at Super Rugby level just yet – but with a few seasons of provincial rugby under his belt, it also wouldn’t be a bad thing.
Damian McKenzie’s return to the Chiefs next year will likely coincide with a permanent shift to the No 10 jersey for the All Blacks pocket rocket and with no player stamping their mark at fullback this season, perhaps Ratumaitavuki-Kneepkens could see his future in the yellow, red and black of the Chiefs.
A potential Chiefs backline for 2023 boasting players such as Brad Weber, Cortez Ratima, Damian McKenzie, Josh Ioane, Quinn Tupaea, Anton Lienert-Brown, Alex Nankivell, Gideon Wrampling, George Bridge, Etene Nanai-Seturo, AJ Lam, Shaun Stevenson and Jacob Ratumaitavuki-Kneepkens is one that could provide the incisiveness needed to make use of all the possession the forwards are currently capable of generating – and one that could help the Chiefs push for Super Rugby glory.
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