Injury cloud for Chiefs Cruden, Nanai-Williams
The Chiefs could field a new-look backline this Friday night with star backs Tim Nanai-Williams and Aaron Cruden in doubt.
Both players were unable to train yesterday and Chiefs head coach Dave Rennie confirmed there was more concern about the pair than there had been in a similar situation before the last couple of games when they have also sat out much of the early part of the week and just done off-the-feet conditioning.
If yesterday's training run was anything to go by then if Nanai-Williams and Cruden are sidelined it could be Gareth Anscombe at first five-eighth, Save Tokula at centre and Robbie Robinson at fullback in the Pukekohe Stadium fixture against the Force.
Nanai-Williams appears the most in danger of not being passed fit for the Force fixture.
"There is more concern about Tim than Aaron," Rennie said
Nanai-Williams aggravated his groin injury against the Rebels last Friday night, forcing Robinson to come on at centre for the last 25 minutes.
"We need to give him a rest at some stage over the next two or three weeks. He's had an injection in it and we need to see how that responds but there is a real question mark over his availability this week."
Compounding the problem - with Richard Kahui gone for the season in order to get a shoulder muscle surgically repaired and Andrew Horrell sidelined by a serious ankle injury - is the fact Charlie Ngatai is in doubt for a second week in a row with a hamstring problem.
Like Nanai-Williams and Cruden he did not train with the team yesterday, working instead on his rehab with trainers and physios.
If Ngatai is also not available then Waikato's Tokula, who recently joined the Chiefs' wider training group to replace Kahui, is the next in line and he trained at centre for most of yesterday's session as they tried to bring him up to speed with the moves.
After him the midfield cupboard looks fairly bare and Rennie confirmed winger Asaeli Tikoirotuma, who has played centre for Manawatu, would be the backup.
Cruden's ankle injury was on the improve, but Rennie said he had "lots of little niggles".
"He's played a lot of footy and we're conscious of that. He needs to freshen up at some stage so we'll make a decision based on how he bounces back in the next couple of days.
"We often do it with Aaron that in the early part of the week he just does a lot of off-feet conditioning so he still gets a lot of work into him but we try to keep him off his legs because of all the little niggles he's got."
As usual Cruden, who has not missed a game in two seasons with the Chiefs and has played virtually every minute as well, is keen to play but Rennie is conscious also of the All Blacks tests coming up next month.
"We've got to make a decision on what's best for him long term as well and he's got an international June window coming up and then will come back to us at the business end of the season so he has a lot of games to go," he said.
Rennie said any changes necessitated if Cruden or Nanai-Williams or both players were unavailable this week would be seamless.
"Gareth's played a lot of 15 for us now obviously so he's pretty clear on his role back there and it's a good opportunity to run him at 10 so he gets comfortable back in there.
"We've had plans to finish games with Gareth at 10 but just the way injuries have gone during games hasn't really allowed us to do that recently."
Meanwhile, Rennie confirmed both tighthead prop Ben Afeaki and halfback Tawera Kerr-Barlow were available for selection this week after returning from long-term injuries, Afeaki out for several weeks with a high ankle sprain that involved ligament damage and Kerr-Barlow, who was on standby to play last Friday, for six weeks with a broken jaw.
Both are key players who will be vital to the Chiefs' push to stay at the top of the New Zealand conference and try to gain overall home advantage for the playoffs.
"I think Ben Afeaki was the most impressive tighthead going around in those early weeks, his work rate is phenomenal, so he makes a real difference around the paddock, is scrummaging really well and is great defensively," Rennie said.