Three rookies bring Chiefs' All Blacks to six
Brodie Retallick, Ben Tameifuna and Sam Cane might not be from the Waikato, but that didn't matter as the Chiefs toasted three rookie All Blacks yesterday.
Six All Blacks in the 31-man squad - with the expected inclusion of Aaron Cruden and Sonny Bill-Williams and injury cover from hooker Hika Elliot - was just reward for Dave Rennie's table-topping outfit. Halfback Tawera-Kerr Barlow was the only Chief to miss out from the training camps.
"It's good to have some familiar faces," Retallick enthused. "Being with some other new-comers makes it a bit easier. The Chiefs will be proud."
The three newbies have already donned the black jersey together, having featured in the world-champion New Zealand under-20s side. They are now hoping for a repeat on the ultimate stage.
Only this time, if that moment arrives, the eyes of a nation will be upon them.
All Blacks assistant coach Ian Foster couldn't mask his pride yesterday. Foster is now immersed in the national set-up but he will always have a soft spot for those that gain promotion from the Chiefs after his eight-year tenure with the franchise.
"Ben and Brodie have come into Super Rugby at a young age and made a massive difference in that [Chiefs] tight-five," Foster observed. "I haven't seen two 20-year-olds play so well and make such and impact at that level.
"They're going to find it a bit of a step up, but we think they're ready."
Foster acknowledged injury to Blues prop Charlie Faumuina had paved the way for Tameifuna's elevation. His ability to play both sides of the scrum was a valuable asset, but the Hawke's Bay-raised prop, who weighs 138kg, had some on-going fitness targets.
"He's got some work to do," Foster admitted.
"He's got this opportunity earlier than expected. The fact he can cover both sides has given him an opportunity.
"It will be a massive learning curve for him, both on and off the field. We'll take it slowly with him. Clearly, he needs to get fitter but he's also got some massive talent."
Tameifuna, to his credit, was content to bide his time and continue learning his craft from scrum guru Mike Cron. Behind the scenes he was working on the finer points of being an adaptable scrummager.
"I'm not in a hurry to become the big superstar," he said. "I played loose-head in high school, at Hawke's Bay and at training with the Chiefs."
After an eye-catching rookie Super Rugby season, Foster gave Bay of Plenty's Retallick every chance of gaining a start in the three tests against Ireland.
"He's probably tapered off a bit with fatigue but he's got a big ticker, does his core jobs well and once he settles in he'll push very hard," Foster said.
It is understood the two-metre lock is likely be on the bench behind the experienced, yet out-of-form Ali Williams, and Sam Whitelock for the series-opener at Eden Park on Saturday.
"Everybody wants to start but I'll take everything that happens and learn from Sam and Ali," Retallick said.
Rotorua-born Cane, a level-headed quick-learner whose understanding of the game has impressed, could well be alongside Retallick.
"It's not quite as daunting as playing South Africa or Australia. My aim now is to make the 22 and get the first test cap under the belt," Cane said, an uncontrollable smile spreading across his face at the prospect.
It's been a meteoric rise for the openside flanker. Despite sharing the No. 7 jersey with Tanerau Latimer this season, Cane has been anointed Richie McCaw's long-term successor.
In doing so, he has overtaken the Crusaders Matt Todd and stand-in Blues skipper Luke Braid.
"I haven't been getting regular starts but I've been happy with how I've been going," Cane said. "Those guys are great players and they've been playing really well. Leapfrogging them is pretty awesome."
Comparisons to McCaw are inevitable but Cane stressed the importance of maintaining his identity.
"We're obviously different players because we're different people. He's the captain and I'm at a really early stage of my career," he said. "It's an awesome opportunity to be able to learn from him. No doubt I'll pick up things that will help my game."