Chiefs' Vant Leven making good on opportunity
This time last year Matt Vant Leven was playing club rugby in Hamilton but now he is an established starter in the Chiefs and not looking likely to give up his spot.
The 1.94m, 106kg Waikato and Fraser-Tech No 8 forced his way back into the Chiefs' wider training group for this season and with a rash of injuries to those loose forwards selected ahead of him in the main squad he got his first start against the Rebels back on May 4 in Melbourne and has not looked back since.
Vant Leven, 25, got his fifth start in a row against the Hurricanes on Friday night and played probably his best game yet, which should keep at bay the challenge from the now fit again Fritz Lee, Ross Filipo and Nick Crosswell, who have all had starts at the back of the scrum this season.
"Matty was outstanding tonight, we thought," Chiefs head coach Dave Rennie said after the 34-22 win over the Hurricanes.
"He carried really well, he had a massive work rate, he did a lot of little things well."
Normally the Chiefs like to replace their No 8 in the second half with their back-up opensider and move Liam Messam to the back of the scrum, but Rennie admitted Vant Leven was travelling so well they decided to leave him out there for the entire match and put Sam Cane into his specialist position replacing Tanerau Latimer.
"Technically [Vant Leven] is a wider training group member who is now starting ahead of three of our other loose forwards who are back from injury.
"He's been rewarded for doing the job for us and the more he plays the better he gets. We're really rapt with him and I guess it does highlight the new system of being able to utilise the wider training group if they're playing well enough," he said.
Normally at this time of the year wider training group members only trained once a week with their teams and concentrated on playing for their clubs but as of this year they train fulltime with the Super Rugby franchises all the way through.
"And the system is working well," Rennie said.
Vant Leven said the five starts in a row he had been given had helped him grow more comfortable in his role at Super Rugby level and boosted his confidence, but even he was surprised to get the whole 80 minutes on Friday.
"I've been playing the 60-minute role and then getting subbed off so it was bloody good to get the full 80 under the belt," said Vant Leven. "I'm stoked."
He said his lungs had felt good at the 60-minute mark compared to his previous outings for the Chiefs and felt much was down to the recent break the teams had had.
"I'm getting a real grasp of things now and it's all falling into place. The coaches gave me the opportunity and that was one of my goals to give it a good go and play my game."
Vant Leven picked up his first try in Friday's game and made another storming break on top of his sheer hard work with and without the ball. He maintains much of it is down to the coaches' insistence from the start that he keeps it simple and does not try to do too much outside the basics.
"Normally this time of year I'd be watching the game on TV and then suiting up for Tech, but the coaches have given me the chance and I've just played my game, done what I can do, because that's all I can do really.
"We've got the backs who can do the flashy stuff so I just try and put my head down and work hard," he said.
The next goal is to get a new contract beyond this season and that would seem a formality for the Rotorua-born player based on his current form.