Chiefs playmakers challenged to step up with Damian McKenzie absent

Damian McKenzie's absence from the Chiefs for next year's Super Rugby Pacific has opened the door for an intriguing selection battle.

The All Blacks playmaker has been the spark lighting up the Chiefs' attack, but he will spend the first half of next year in Japanese rugby with Tokyo Sungoliath.

The 26-year-old is almost irreplaceable after returning to top form last season as the Chiefs made the Super Rugby Aotearoa final in Clayton McMillan's first year as coach.

In the Chiefs' 2022 squad of 38 players announced on Monday, there were few major changes, but for the loss of McKenzie, and there is an enormous gain with the return of 92-test All Blacks lock Brodie Retallick after two seasons with the Kobelco Steelers in Japan.

McMillan has challenged his other playmakers to step into McKenzie's role – at either first five-eighth or fullback – with one-test All Black Josh Ioane in contention after his switch from the Highlanders, as well as Bryn Gatland, Kaleb Trask and Rivez Reihana.

“We want to see somebody put their hand up and stake a claim to say 'I'm the guy who can lead this exciting team around the park',” McMillan said on Monday.

“They're all capable, so there are [selection] challenges there. Everybody will get an opportunity in the pre-season and those who put up their hand will be rewarded.”

Their four playmakers can all play first-five or fullback, McMillan said, and they haven’t yet considered who will play where ahead of pre-season in January.

Ioane is keen on playing 10, though, to rekindle the form that earned him his test cap against Tonga ahead of the 2019 Rugby World Cup.

“He's played really well for Otago and benefited from playing more regularly at 10,” McMillan said of the 26-year-old's form in the NPC.

“He's made no secret of the fact he's elected to come to the Chiefs to chase that 10 jersey, but having seen some other contenders more regularly, they are not going to make it easy for him.”