Chiefs’ Laghlan McWhannell savors Super Rugby debut after years of injury pain

Laghlan McWhannell knows a thing or two about the virtues of patience.

What, with having to wait 1208 days for a Super Rugby debut, the young Chiefs lock may forever subscribe to the age-old adage that good things take time.

Because, this professional rugby gig has been anything but smooth sailing for the 23-year-old, whose horror run with injury saw him miss any game time with the franchise the past three seasons.

The Chiefs have a stack of quality locks for Laghlan McWhannell to compete with.

Phil Walter/Getty Images

The Chiefs have a stack of quality locks for Laghlan McWhannell to compete with.

No wonder, then, after being named in the Chiefs squad for the first time all the way back on October 30, 2018, it was “definitely a monkey off the back” when McWhannell finally trotted onto the park in the opening round of this year’s Super Rugby Pacific competition against the Highlanders in Queenstown.

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“It just seemed like it was such a long time coming,” he told stuff

“I was a little bit disappointed when we got told we had to move down to Queenstown, because I knew that my family wouldn’t be able to be there for my debut, but about 10 seconds later I thought, ‘I’m just so stoked that I get a chance to play, it’s been so long that I don’t care where it is or who it’s in front of, I’d just be happy to chuck on a jersey and get a cap’.

“It was awesome. I was really stoked, I couldn’t have asked for a better one, we got the win, I started, along with Brodie Retallick, so that was a dream come true. And [it was a] relief that I didn’t get injured again.”

Indeed, that might have just been the last straw for the 1.98m, 114kg second-rower, who had steadily risen through the representative ranks.

Born in Hamilton and growing up in Auckland, McWhannell returned to the Waikato for secondary schooling, boarding at St Peter’s School in Cambridge, and went on to play for New Zealand Schools in 2016. He then made his Waikato NPC debut in 2017 and featured for the New Zealand Under 20s in 2018, in a year which ended with him signing a Super Rugby deal.

Laghlan McWhannell steadily rose through the ranks after representing New Zealand Schools in 2016.

Simon Watts/Getty Images

Laghlan McWhannell steadily rose through the ranks after representing New Zealand Schools in 2016.

But then came a cruel twist of fate as he was eagerly awaiting a debut over the first half of the 2019 campaign.

“I guess just because of my age they didn’t want to throw me out there too early, which was frustrating at the time,” McWhannell said, “because they also weren’t letting me play club rugby, because I was like an injury away, they said.”

That injury then happened on the night of May 4, when Michael Allardice broke his ankle against the Highlanders in Dunedin. But, in a crushing coincidence, McWhannell, having eventually been released to play a few games for Hautapu, had suffered the exact same injury earlier that day.

“Barnesy [then-Chiefs assistant coach Neil Barnes] called me up on Sunday morning and said, ‘Hey mate, you’ll be in there this week’. And I said, ‘Well I can’t, I’ve broken my ankle’.

“So that was frustrating, that was the start of the slippery slope.”

Slippery, alright. McWhannell in 2020 had knee surgery for patellar tendonitis but the “scraping out” didn’t cure it, and he didn’t play at all that year.

Laghlan McWhannell looks to get a pass away during New Zealand's World Rugby Under 20 Championship semifinal against France in 2018.

GP O’Sullivan/Photosport

Laghlan McWhannell looks to get a pass away during New Zealand’s World Rugby Under 20 Championship semifinal against France in 2018.

So in January last year he went for a second operation to get some bone shaved behind his knee. It wasn’t all that successful either, though he was still able to play NPC, where he shone for the title-winning Mooloos side, and he now just has to cope with the “niggly” knee.

“It doesn’t really have a certain pattern, some days it’s sore, some days it’s better than I thought, some days it doesn’t warm up, it’s a bit all over the show,” he said.

“It’s got it to a stage that it’s manageable, that I can get through a decent amount of training and can still play, so [I’m] pretty grateful.”

In Waikato's title-winning NPC campaign last year Laghlan McWhannell showed what he was capable of.

Phil Walter/Getty Images

In Waikato’s title-winning NPC campaign last year Laghlan McWhannell showed what he was capable of.

Through all his injury troubles, McWhannell at least had the comfort of having signed a five-year deal with the Chiefs (through till 2023), so didn’t have the worry of dropping off the scene. Not that that meant there weren’t tough times.

“I definitely had some big lows, like every day had new challenges in itself,” McWhannell said. “Seeing the boys go off to training or be able to do their own thing, and I’m kind of just stuck doing my rehab in the gym, that was quite frustrating.”

But that’s when he also turned a negative into a positive and aimed to grow himself in other areas, the advice of, “You can’t just sit there and game all day and eat chocolate” from his 1st XV coach Sean Hohneck – the former Waikato and Chiefs lock – resonating fully.

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“I did try it, and I went crazy, and that’s when I listened in,” McWhannell noted.

“The thing I learn about the three surgeries was it was the times that I put other things in place and set other goals outside of rugby for me to focus on was when I didn’t get so down and didn’t dwell on the fact that I couldn’t play. It was when I had other s… to do that kind of kept my mind going.”

That included cooking, barista lessons (for a man who drinks hot chocolate, not coffee), completing dive certificates, learning to play the piano (bought off TradeMe), public speaking and being part of discussion panels including Korero Bro Suicide and Wellbeing, partnering with the WaterBoy charity, attaining World Rugby level one and two coaching certificates and helping with Waikato under-14 and under-15 rugby camps.

It was enough to beat out Sonny Bill Williams to a New Zealand Rugby Players Association Personal Development Award in 2019.

“I don’t really see it as me beating him, it’s just a couple of people’s opinion, he does some great work in the community as well,” McWhannell said.

“It was cool though, that I got recognized for what I thought was just me trying to do as many fun activites as I could that I wouldn’t normally get the time for if I was training.”

Through all his injury battles, Laghlan McWhannell has constantly tried to grow off the field.

Michael Bradley/Getty Images

Through all his injury battles, Laghlan McWhannell has constantly tried to grow off the field.

Now, it’s rugby getting in the way of life. There’s a guitar McWhannell fetched from the dump which is catching dust, and his hopes of volunteering for the fire service have been put on hold. But it’s probably fair that footy gets its turn.

He’ll have to work for it, though. Despite hailing McWhannell’s debut as “outstanding” and noting he’d earned his opportunity to start, Chiefs coach Clayton McMillan opted to rotate him out for last Saturday’s defeat to the Blues at Eden Park, in a squad with stacked locking stocks including All Blacks veteran Brodie Retallick, fellow internationals Tupou Vaa’i and Josh Lord, and the promising Naitoa Ah Kuoi.

So whether McWhannell’s next chance comes on Saturday night against the Crusaders in Christchurch remains to be seen.

But one thing’s for sure, he does indeed know how to bid his time.

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