Pulu pushes All Black halfback to bench limbo
Augustine Pulu has been given the starting halfback spot by the Chiefs for tomorrow night's resumption of Super Rugby, leaving All Black Tawera Kerr-Barlow even further out on a limb.
Kerr-Barlow never got a look-in during the All Blacks' three-test series against England in the last three weeks, relegated to the third halfback spot with TJ Perenara suddenly preferred as Aaron Smith's back-up off the bench.
The 23-year-old Waikato halfback returned to the Chiefs from his time with the All Blacks keen to get back in the action, reasonably happy with his form before the break, but instead the No 9 jersey this week has been handed to Pulu, who missed the Chiefs' last four matches with a knee injury that in the end required key-hole surgery to repair meniscus cartilage damage.
While not having played Super Rugby since April 25 when he started against the Brumbies in the absence of Kerr-Barlow, who was sidelined by concussion and hamstring issues, he has played club rugby in Counties Manukau since his operation.
"There's not much in it," said Chiefs head coach Dave Rennie, "and the fact that Augustine's been here while we've changed a little bit of our structure and our organisation in and around that means he gets first crack this time.
"[Kerr-Barlow] will still play some footy [off the bench]. None of those decisions were easy but we've picked a side that best suits, we think, the type of game we want to play and the opposition we're playing against."
This week Kerr-Barlow spoke about not run as much for the Chiefs this season as other years but felt happy with his form and put it down to reduced opportunities, saying it was not something that could be forced and the moments to run had to be carefully chosen.
Halfback is just one of nine changes to the starting XV from the Chiefs team that last took the field in the loss to the Waratahs in New Plymouth nearly four weeks ago.
The other major talking point is the return of big centre Robbie Fruean, who has not played for the Chiefs since the March 14 home match against South Africa's Stormers, having required surgery to fix an accelerated heart beat that was a legacy of his second open heart surgery, which he had in Christchurch last year to replace a valve.
Fruean has played four club matches and trained extensively with the Chiefs to get his fitness back to the required levels for Super Rugby and will tomorrow night partner Bundee Aki in midfield.
"[Fruean] gives us a bit of size compared to the backline we've been putting out the last few months and that excites us," Rennie said.
"He's a big man, carries well, is big, strong and fast but has been defending really well as well.
"It's a nice combination ... Bundee and Robbie might draw a bit of attention and Bundee might find a bit of space in and around that so we're really excited for Robbie.
"He's worked hard to get to this position and gets a crack."
Rennie said Fruean had made massive strides with his conditioning thanks to a lot of additional training over a period of time and the coaches were confident he was now up to the job that faced him opposite the Highlanders' new All Black centre sensation Malakai Fekitoa.
"Initially he just had trouble doing any repeated speed and he'd get to the stage where he'd be bent over, but over time as his fitness has increased and with his medication for the heart and so on managed really well now he's going well."
While the Chiefs still have several players sidelined with injury Rennie said there were still enough contenders available to make this week's selection a difficult one.
"It wasn't straightforward because we've got a handful of options and obviously we're managing the reintroduction of the All Blacks so we wanted to make sure that they were telling us they were desperate to play and keen to rip into things, because we've had a group of guys here for a couple of weeks who've been working bloody hard.
"There were some difficult decisions to be made, to be honest," Rennie said.
Veteran Samoan hooker Mahonri Schwalger has not started many matches this season with youngsters Rhys Marshall, first, and then Nathan Harris wearing the No 2 jersey a lot of the time.
But Schwalger has been preferred to Harris this time, relegating the latter to the bench, an improvement in his fitness and troublesome knee as well as his experience being deciding factors in his selection this time, according to Rennie.
"We think that's a pretty important role for us and obviously the other guy will get some game time to finish it off."
Tomorrow night's match at Dunedin Stadium will be played under a roof so will not be affected by the outside elements of a New Zealand winter.
That suits the Chiefs' high-tempo game and the Highlanders are the same.
Both teams would be desperate for the win and influenced by the fact they would be playing with a dry ball indoors.