Fit-again playmaker Kaleb Trask has been handed the keys, and plenty of responsibility, at No 10 for the dance of the desperates (both 0-2) at Sky Stadium, with Bryn Gatland dropping out of the 23 altogether, despite having impressed his coaches in his two outings so far.
Trask, 22, has nine caps to his name after debuting last season, but had been sidelined at the start of this year with a knee injury.
Now fully healed, it’s his electric attacking game, which he has showcased big-time for Bay of Plenty at provincial level, which coach Clayton McMillan – who had also coached Trask at the Steamers – is hoping can finally put an end to the Chiefs’ miserable record-equalling 11-game losing run.
“He’s been telling us he’s ready for the last six or seven weeks, but he hasn’t really quite been there. But he gets his opportunity this week,” McMillan said.
“He had a fantastic Mitre 10 Cup last year, albeit most of it at fullback. He started off the [Super Rugby] season last year at 10, and we see him as a 10 who can cover fullback.
“He’s got a bit of challenge, because we actually really like what Bryn’s brought to the table – a lot of calmness and direction. Trasky is a little bit more of an attacking player, so his challenge will be to get the balance right between controlling and driving us around the right parts of the field, and then showcasing his running game.”
Asked why if so impressed with Gatland he couldn’t still get a spot in the 23, McMillan said it was a case of balance on the bench, with Damian McKenzie to continue shifting from fullback to first-five later in games, and then both a midfielder and outside back able to be carried in the reserves.
“At the moment we don’t see space for effectively three guys that can play 10 and 15 in a match-day 23,” McMillan said.
“We’re sticking with that formula, and unless we have a major shift in thinking, three isn’t going to go into two for most of the season, I would imagine.”
There are four other changes to the Chiefs’ starting XV, and five to the reserves, following the 39-17 to the Crusaders last Saturday.
After a knee niggle saw Anton Lienert-Brown play from the bench in Christchurch, the All Blacks midfielder comes back into the run-on side, replacing Sean Wainui at centre, with Alex Nankivell onto the pine, while Jonah Lowe reclaims the No 14 jersey he had against the Highlanders, which Shaun Stevenson wore last weekend.
Up front, lock Naitoa Ah Kuoi reclaims a starting spot, with last weekend’s debutant, Josh Lord, set to be sidelined for a couple of weeks with a shoulder injury, which sees Samipeni Finau back in the 23.
Loosehead prop Aidan Ross is promoted to start, and Ollie Norris is back on the bench, with Reuben O’Neill rested.
“He has had a really big pre-season, and we’re really mindful that he’s broken down a couple of times over the last few years and we don’t want to keep pushing him so much that he actually falls over again, we can't afford that luxury,” McMillan said.
Tighthead Sione Mafileo is out with a niggly back injury he’s been carrying for the past fortnight, so Hawke's Bay’s Joe Apikotoa is set for a Super Rugby debut from a bench which also sees Simon Parker in for Kaylum Boshier in what is a youthful loose forwards rotation.
“With those young guys we don’t see that we lose much, and don’t gain anything significantly between all of them, they’re all young and talented, so we want to give them all a go so they get that taste and start to build some experience,” McMillan said.
Halfback Te Toiroa Tahuriorangi will bring up his 50th Super Rugby match against his old side, who the Chiefs haven’t beaten since 2018 and in a city they haven’t won in since 2017.
Chiefs: Damian McKenzie, Jonah Lowe, Anton Lienert-Brown, Quinn Tupaea, Etene Nanai-Seturo, Kaleb Trask, Brad Weber (cc), Luke Jacobson, Sam Cane (cc), Mitchell Brown, Naitoa Ah Kuoi, Tupou Vaa’i, Angus Ta’avao, Samisoni Taukei’aho, Aidan Ross. Reserves: Bradley Slater, Ollie Norris, Joe Apikotoa, Samipeni Finau, Simon Parker, Te Toiroa Tahuriorangi, Alex Nankivell, Chase Tiatia.