Containing Brendon Leonard’s excitement until kickoff is the enjoyable challenge for the Chiefs after the All Blacks halfback was confirmed in a powerful side to face the Brumbies in Friday night’s vital clash in Hamilton.
Duncan Johnstone writes for Rugbyheaven NZ that after three weeks on the sidelines with a chest injury the bubbly Leonard takes his place in a team that also features a revamped front row.
Chiefs coach Ian Foster has shuffled his props with James McGougan back in favour at tighthead and the versatile Ben May switching over to loosehead to accommodate that change.
Sona Taumalolo drops to a bench that also features the return of talented backline utility Dwayne Sweeney now that he has overcome his ankle injury. Deputy halfback Toby Morland is also there after making way for Leonard.
The second-placed Chiefs are on the verge of just their second playoffs appearance. A solitary bonus point would be enough to make the playoffs and if they can nail a bonus point win they will be assured of a home semifinal as a thrilling final weekend of round-robin action plays out with seven teams still in the hunt for the top four.
That mix includes the fifth-placed Brumbies who have everything to play for in Hamilton, making for a fascinating contest.
So Foster has the luxury of naming his preferred side for a match of huge importance, something that skipper Mils Muliaina believes is timely.
“It’s definitely the right time to start getting some of your more experienced players back and that’s something we probably haven’t had the luxury of in the past. So it’s nice to get the likes of Brendon back and have a full strength team,” Muliaina said in Hamilton as the Chiefs got down to their last major training session of the week.
Leonard, a ball of energy under normal circumstances, has been amping to get involved in this campaign again after being such a central figure in the Chiefs’ good season before being hit by injury against the Cheetahs on their South African tour.
Muliaina said it was obvious that Leonard was raring to go. Now the test was to make sure he hit the ground running.
“It’s noticeable his excitement levels … he’s jumping out of his skin to play. We missed him a bit in South Africa. But in saying that, Toby Morland really stood up for us and has played some outstanding football in the last few weeks.
“The hardest thing will be to contain Brendon’s excitement levels until Friday.”
Muliaina says the Chiefs want to put their stake in the ground early and see what eventuates over a what promises to be a drama-packed two days.
“It would be good to not hang around and have to wait for other results to go your way to make the semifinals. The good thing is we know our destiny is in our own hands. If we do it right on Friday we can sit back and hopefully make that semifinal spot that we so desperately want.
“We have to do our job first. It would be nice to have a home semifinal but we know we can still miss out if we don’t do things right this Friday.”
Muliaina was full of praise for the Brumbies who kept their semifinal hopes alive by thrashing the Blues 37-15 last weekend in Canberra.
“We looked at the clip last week and the way they played against the Blues was absolutely outstanding. I thought the way their set piece went, particularly their scrum and how they dominated the Blues, was outstanding.
“We know they are going to be excited. They need five points. They want to come here and play some expansive rugby but in saying that we want to get out there and play the rugby we have the whole season.
“We want to get the ball out wider and some front foot ball.”
That’s where the return of Leonard should prove influential.
He was the player to spark much of their attack when it was at the peak of its powers in the middle of the championship.
While Morland has done an admirable job in his absence, he has been largely happy to feed the players outside him and run good support lines rather than initiate attacks from the base of the rucks and set-pieces as Leonard does with his sniping game and speed.
The Chiefs got their outstanding wings Sitiveni Sivivatu and Lelia Masaga back into their mix after lengthy absences to help contribute to last week’s gritty win over the Hurricanes.
Now they have a better all round look to their attack and that includes All Blacks Muliaina (back) and Richard Kahui (calf) getting over their niggles to take their place.
“It’s going to be a difficult game and probably the most important game of our season so far,” said Muliaina.
CHIEFS: 15 Mils Muliaina (c), 14 Lelia Masaga, 13 Richard Kahui, 12 Callum Bruce, 11 Sitiveni Sivivatu, 10 Stephen Donald, 9 Brendon Leonard, 8 Sione Lauaki, 7 Tanerau Latimer, 6 Liam Messam, 5 Kevin O’Neill, 4 Craig Clarke, 3 James McGougan, 2 Aled de Malmanche, 1 Ben May.
Reserves: 16 Hika Elliot, 17 Sona Taumalolo, 18 Toby Lynn, 19 Serge Lilo, 20 Toby Morland, 21 Dwayne Sweeney, 22 Sosene Anesi.