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While the hookers changed around him late this week, new Chiefs loosehead prop Pauliasi Manu was still shaking his head about his incredible path into the team.
The mobile Manu will start against the Highlanders in tonight's opening New Zealand match of Super Rugby at Dunedin's covered Forsyth Barr Stadium, a debut remarkable not just because he was the last player signed on by the Chiefs as an injury replacement.
The 25-year-old Auckland frontrower was supposed to be lining up for Melbourne's Rebels after being lured across the Tasman in lieu of further opportunities with the Blues following his first full Super Rugby season in 2012.
New Blues coach John Kirwan delisted Manu, who had made his debut in 2011 after promotion from the wider training group but managed only three caps last season.
He signed a two-year deal with the Rebels but a scan during a compulsory pre-season medical revealed a bulging disc in Manu's neck and the contract was voided.
At the same time, Chiefs prop Josh Hohneck suffered a serious ankle injury in a farming accident and Dave Rennie and his coaching team were on the hunt for a new prop.
"We're very lucky to have got the whisper that things were stalling at the Rebels just at a time when we lost Josh Hohneck, because we were scouring around the country beyond that and with all franchises having five props plus wider training group the best 30 props are already out of it," Rennie said.
"To be able to pick up someone of Pauli's ability, we're very fortunate and he's worked hard. He's made some shifts physically.
"He's a very powerful man, but he's dropped a little bit of excess weight, he's a lot fitter, he's done PBs in his yo-yo [test] as well so he's done very well."
When he joined the Chiefs, Manu never dreamed he would be starting the first competition match, but credits the achievement to sheer hard work.
"I've never been this strong and this fit," Manu said.
"My main goal was my skinfolds [body fat percentage test] and to get it under a hundred.
"In my rugby career I've never got it under a hundred and now it's 86. I'm still the same weight, 115kg, but it's more muscle now.
"It feels a lot different - I have more energy to get out of the scrum and do more outside of that."
And his neck?
"It's a rubbish story now. I haven't felt it at all while I've been scrumming."
Manu spoke to his mother earlier in the week and she congratulated him but he refused to join the family celebrations, because his hard work was just starting.
Manu will be propping against Highlanders tighthead Ma'afu Fia, who will have new Waikato signing Brayden Mitchell alongside him at hooker with Andrew Hore still suspended.
Meanwhile, the hooker change came about officially yesterday after Hika Elliot was ruled out after tearing a calf muscle at the last full team training run of the week, on Wednesday. He has been replaced by fellow 2012 stalwart Mahonri Schwalger.
"I feel for Hika because he's got himself in fantastic nick, doing PBs in all sorts of areas with skinfold tests and conditioning and so on and playing the best footy that we've seen of him over the last 14 or so months," Rennie said.
Schwalger, who is coming back from off-season surgery and was originally going to be given an extra week of training before playing his first match, will instead line up alongside Manu and tighthead prop Ben Afeaki, with young rookie Rhys Marshall reserve hooker.
They face a tough Highlanders pack, although the absence of grizzled All Black tight forwards Brad Thorn and Hore should help the Chiefs.
Venue and time: Forsyth Barr Stadium, Dunedin, 7.35pm kickoff
Highlanders: Ben Smith, Kade Poki, Phil Burleigh, Ma'a Nonu, Hosea Gear (c), Lima Sopoaga, Aaron Smith, Nasi Manu, John Hardie, Joe Wheeler, Josh Bekhuis, Jarrad Hoeata, Ma'afu Fia, Brayden Mitchell, Tony Woodcock. Res: Liam Coltman, Bronson Murray, Elliot Dixon, Tim Boys, Fumiaki Tanaka, Hayden Parker, Buxton Popoali'i.
Chiefs: Gareth Anscombe, Patrick Osborne, Tim Nanai-Williams, Bundee Aki, Asaeli Tikoirotuma, Aaron Cruden, Tawera Kerr-Barlow, Fritz Lee, Sam Cane, Liam Messam, Brodie Retallick, Craig Clarke (c), Ben Afeaki, Mahonri Schwalger, Pauliasi Manu. Res: Rhys Marshall, Ben Tameifuna, Michael Fitzgerald, Tanerau Latimer, Augustine Pulu, Charlie Ngatai, Lelia Masaga.
Referee: Steve Walsh.
TAB odds: Highlanders $1.67, Chiefs $2.10
- Waikato Times
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