The Chiefs are backing their “Mr Fixit” to provide one more ready-made solution when they host the Hurricanes in the opening Super 14 semifinal in Hamilton on Friday night.
With All Black centre Richard Kahui today giving up his battle with his problem calf and ruling himself out for the match – the Chiefs’ first ever home semifinal – coach Ian Foster was forced to retain the versatile Dwayne Sweeney at centre.
Marc Hinton writes for Rugbyheaven NZ that the only two changes to the squad for just the Chiefs’ second semifinal appearance in the history of the competition were both injury-enforced.
Toby Morland is restored to starting duties at halfback after All Black Brendon Leonard’s hamstring tear last week ruled him out for three to six weeks.
And in the front row, Ben May’s serious knee injury means Sona Taumalolo comes back at loosehead and James McGougan retains the tighthead spot.
But it’s Sweeney’s latest fill-in job that everyone is talking about. He was a late inclusion at No 13 for last week’s 10-7 win over the ACT Brumbies to close out the round-robin, when the extent of Kahui’s calf problems were first realised. But most expected the extra week would allow the All Black to make a timely return.
Not so, and now it’s Sweeney’s moment to seize. The 24-year-old backline utility has experience in the position, but as a combination he and Callum Bruce are a little on the raw side. Given they’re up against the Canes’ crack All Black pairing of Conrad Smith and Ma’a Nonu, it shapes as a massive task for the youngsters.
But Chiefs coach Ian Foster is not fazed by Kahui’s absence – with the All Black now suspected to have a tear in his muscle – and he has the utmost faith in Sweeney to provide whatever his team needs on Friday night.
“Dwayne’s been a real problem solver; a Mr Fixit man for us this year,” Foster told Fairfax Media after naming his squad. “He’s played well when he’s gone into the midfield at the start of the competition when Richard wasn’t there. He played well on the wing when our wingers weren’t there and he did a pretty good job against [Stirling] Mortlock last week.
“He’s a quality midfielder and I know he’s pretty excited about this occasion.”
Chiefs skipper Mils Muliaina added his endorsement for the sweet-stepping Sweeney who gets arguably the biggest opportunity of his career against the world’s best midfield combination.
He believes Sweeney and Morland can both make the most of what is a huge opportunity for them.
“I’ve got total belief in both Dwayne and Toby’s ability to step in and take over,” said the Chiefs captain. “We’ve always been aware it’s going to take the whole squad to get this far, and on to the final hopefully.
“I’ve got faith in both of those guys and I know they’re very excited by the prospect of going out there and having a decent crack at the semi.”
Sweeney picked up the nickname ‘Sweenivatu’ when he filled in on the left wing for the injured Sitievi Sivivatu earlier in the campaign with pretty spectacular success. He scored a try coming off the bench against the Reds in Brisbane, then picked up a hat-trick in his first start in the No 11 jersey against the Lions.
But he admits this is a different sort of a challenge now.
“Richard’s obviously a massive loss for us,” said Sweeney. “He’s been an important part of our squad throughout the season. But it is a squad and I’m just really looking fwd to the opportunity. I’ll just enjoy the occasion and not worry too much about trying to repeat what Richard does, but put my own influence on the game.”
The Chiefs coach had no worries about Morland’s abilities to handle the challenge at halfback where he’ll go up against feisty All Black Piri Weepu.
“He’s clearly ready,” said Foster. “He started three of the last four games for us. He’s in the groove. We drafted Toby into this squad because we wanted an experienced No 9 to back up Brendon. This is the job he’s been picked for. It’s a bit of a thrill for him, but he deserves it.”
Foster is also hopeful his revamped front row will continue on its breakthrough season despite the absence of the influential May.
Both Taumalolo and McGougan have had plenty of rugby this year, but usually it’s been as the other part of a combination with May. This time they get to show that they’re both up to the starting job.
“It doesn’t really feel like a reshuffle because both props have had plenty of game-time,” said Foster. “They’re excited, they’ll do well and we’ve got a very able guy on the bench in Joe Savage who’s very keen to put a season’s worth of rugby into whatever minutes he gets.”
Despite the latest injury frustrations Foster said his side’s preparations have gone well so far as finals fever hits the hamlet of Hamilton, with the hot Hurricanes coming to town for the second time in a fortnight (the Chiefs winning the penultimate round-robin encounter 16-8 to clinch home advantage).
“We’ve been trying to keep a lid on it to a certain extent and try to focus on the learnings we got out of a fortnight ago,” said the coach. “But overall you can feel the excitement going around and I think we’ll be ready to go.”
Tickets are selling fast for the match after only opening up to the general public today. As at 1.30pm 20,000 had already been sold.
CHIEFS: 15 Mils Muliaina (capt), 14 Lelia Masaga, 13 Dwayne Sweeney, 12 Callum Bruce, 11 Sitiveni Sivivatu, 10 Stephen Donald, 9 Toby Morland; 8 Sione Lauaki, 7 Tanerau Latimer, 6 Liam Messam, 5 Kevin O’Neill, 4 Craig Clarke, 3 James McGougan, 2 Aled de Malmanche, 1 Sona Taumalolo. Reserves: 16 Hika Elliot, 17 Joe Savage, 18 Toby Lynn, 19 Serge Lilo, 20 David Bason, 21 Mike Delany, 22 Sosene Anesi.
HURRICANES: 15 Cory Jane, 14 Tamati Ellison, 13 Conrad Smith, 12 Ma’a Nonu, 11 David Smith, 10 Willie Ripia, 9 Piri Weepu; 8 Rodney So’oialo (capt), 7 Scott Waldrom, 6 Victor Vito, 5 Jason Eaton, 4 Jeremy Thrush, 3 Neemia Tialata, 2 Andrew Hore, 1 John Schwalger. Reserves: 16 Ged Robinson, 17 Jacob Ellison, 18 Bryn Evans, 19 Karl Lowe, 20 Alby Mathewson, 21 Jason Kawau, 22 Zac Guilford.Tweet