Josh Ioane has won the battle for the Chiefs No 10 jersey and faces a showdown against his former Highlanders side in the opening round of Super Rugby Pacific.
After four seasons at the southern franchise, the one-test All Black has made the shift north as he looks to kick-start his career, desperate to get more time at his preferred spot at first five-eighth.
And the 26-year-old has indeed been given that opportunity straight away, named to start at first five-eighth for the season opener in Queenstown on Saturday (4.35pm kickoff) in a Chiefs team which will have All Blacks Anton Lienert-Brown and Tupou Vaa’i sitting out with niggles.
Bryn Gatland, who shared the first-five duties last year with Damian McKenzie (who is skipping this season while playing for the Suntory Goliath in Japan), has been named on the bench.
* Highlanders spring surprise with Josh Timu on the wing to face Chiefs in Super Rugby Pacific opener
* Super Rugby Pacific preview: Damian McKenzie absence to be keenly felt by Chiefs
* Super Rugby: Unvaccinated Wallabies lock Sitaleki Timani leaves Western Force
But it wasn’t an easy call to make, assistant coach David Hill – a former Chiefs and one-test All Black himself – admitted.
“It was one of a number of tough decisions, so there was some good debates,” he said.
“We felt both stated a pretty strong case to start. We felt that Josh had done well in the last pre-season game, so he gets the nod this time.
†[We’re] happy with his progress, happy with his combinations with the centers and the nines, and just looking forward to watching him go.
“We know we’ve got two quality 10s that if they don’t perform the other guy will be ready to go and step in.”
Adding to Ioane’s frustration at the Highlanders had been being shuffled around the backline, with stints at fullback and even second five-eighth. Asked if he was being looked at soley as a No 10 this year, Hill all but confirmed that was the plan.
“He’s a versatile player, so if injuries or situations arise where he gets thrown back to 15, he could do that, but he’s motivated and made it pretty clear first-five’s his focus. So we’ll just let him do that and know we’ve got a couple of other options at 15.”
One of those comes in the form of another Chiefs debutant in Emoni Narawa, with the Bay of Plenty flyer, who played seven matches for the Blues the past two years, named away from his more familiar spot on the wing and in the No 15 jersey .
“Emoni played a lot of his earlier rugby at 15, myself and [coach] Clayton [McMillan] had some dealings with him at Bay of Plenty, and he’s played under-19 for Bay of Plenty in that position,” Hill said.
“He’s just as good on the wing, but we felt that he was the right man for the job this week. I’m pretty excited to see him go.”
There is also a Super Rugby debutant in the lineup, with Waikato lock Laghlan McWhannell to finally make an appearance at this level, having been contracted the past three years but been heavily hit with injuries.
“He’s had to wait a while… so great reward for him for his perseverance and his commitment to his rehab and everything he’s done,” Hill said of the 23-year-old.
“He’s a talented young player who’s got a big future and a good physical presence – he showed that last week, he doesn’t mind the contact.”
McWhannell will start alongside Brodie Retallick, who will don the Chiefs jersey for the first time since 2019, following his two seasons in Japan with the Kobelco Kobe Steelers.
Hill said both midfielder Lienert-Brown and lock Vaa’i could have played at a pinch, but were not worth risking.
Three other 2021 All Blacks have been named in the reserves – hooker Samisoni Taukei’aho, in his 50th match for the Chiefs, prop Angus Ta’avao and halfback Brad Weber, who will again co-captain the team this year with Sam Cane.
AT A GLANCE
chiefs: Emoni Narawa, Shaun Stevenson, Alex Nankivell, Quinn Tupaea, Jonah Lowe, Josh Ioane, Xavier Roe, Pita Gus Sowakula, Sam Cane (cc), Luke Jacobson, Brodie Retallick, Laghlan McWhannell, Sione Mafileo, Bradley Slater, Ollie Norris. Reserves: Samisoni Taukei’aho, Atu Moli, Angus Ta’avao, Naitoa Ah Kuoi, Kaylum Boshier, Brad Weber (cc), Bryn Gatland, Chase Tiatia.