Lee good fit for up-for-grabs Chiefs No 8

16:00, Jan 16 2013
Fritz Lee
COUNT ME IN: Fritz Lee on one of his bullocking charges for Counties last winter that earned him a Chiefs contract.

Sonny Bill Williams has gone and everyone knows the gap that leaves in this year's Chiefs.

But there is also a big hole to fill at No 8 following the departure of both Kane Thompson and Alex Bradley, and the queue is four or five deep with huge depth in all three loose forward positions.

Fritz Lee is the only back-of-the-scrum specialist among them as he tries to fight his way back into Super Rugby action after slim pickings last season.

But he will be up against some experienced hard nuts in the form of former All Black Ross Filipo and ex-Highlander Nick Crosswell, while Liam Messam obviously comes into the mix despite being the incumbent blindside flanker, and then there is wider training group member Matt Vant Leven.

With the Chiefs treating their wider training group as fully fledged squad members, Vant Leven starts the pre-season with as much chance as any of selection.

"We're looking at it from the perspective that we've got three trial matches coming up and just as we spoke about last year, pre-season is the time to show your wares and impress the coaching staff so [No 8] is up for grabs," Chiefs forwards coach Tom Coventry said.


"There are a few guys here who obviously have played eight and while Fritz is the specialist, having played most of his rugby there, we've also got Ross there who played loose forward for Wellington and has played a lot of eight when he was playing for [London] Wasps."

Then there was Crosswell, who had played No 8 for Manawatu.

While he regarded himself as more of a specialist No 6, the coaches had spoken to him about playing in the boot.

"Obviously at the moment Liam is likely to be the [co-] captain again with Clarkey [Craig Clarke] so that job [at 6] might be a bit harder to get but that doesn't necessarily mean there won't be opportunities to play in that position during the season," Coventry said.

Vant Leven, also a No 6, had played No 8 for his Fraser-Tech club in Hamilton and would be up for an opportunity during the trial matches, starting with the Highlanders in Taupo on February 2.

With Tanerau Latimer and Sam Cane resuming their battle for the No 7 jersey, that makes for a real bun-fight for loose forward roles fullstop.

That includes the bench and Coventry hinted that it should not be assumed the Chiefs would use the same tactic of last season of bringing Cane on as a second opensider in the second half with Messam moving to No 8.

"It was more to do with the resilience of the guys who were playing at eight and maybe a little bit to do with their fitness levels, whereas Liam was super fit last year and he was able to finish the games a lot stronger.

"I thought Sam played a particularly good role last year coming off the bench and adding the extra impact that we needed.

"But I know he wouldn't be too happy in 2013 in that role, so he'll be wanting to cement the seven position," Coventry said.

So what happens in the trial games will have a major bearing on which tactics the coaches adopt when it comes to their loose forward mix.

Counties Manukau Steeler No 8 Lee, 24, last year went from playing 14 matches, including 10 starts, for the Chiefs in his debut season in 2011 to almost a forgotten man.

He started the first match - the loss to the Highlanders - was on the bench for the next and then not sighted again.

"Obviously I didn't get much game time last year because of the way I played and getting into the team system.

"But the thing for me now I know what sort of work-on the coaches gave me and I went back to the ITM Cup and worked on it," Lee said.

"Hopefully we're all on the same page now and I'm just looking forward to getting some more game time."

Lee was told to tighten up his game and work with his fellow forwards rather than his natural open individual style of game.

He worked hard to do it and the coaches were pleased with what they saw.

He looks up to Messam, who has encouraged him throughout his time in the Chiefs.

He believes he can take a lead from that player who tightened his own game up last season and became the incumbent All Black No 6.

"I've just got to put my hand up now and if the opportunity comes, I've got to take it," Lee said.

Waikato Times