Prop Aidan Ross set for Super Rugby debut for Chiefs against Force in Perth
The Chiefs are set to roll out their 10th front-rower of the season, with Bay of Plenty prop Aidan Ross in line for a Super Rugby debut against the Force in Perth this weekend.
The 21-year-old has been named on the bench for Saturday night's fixture, with Siegfried Fisi'ihoi promoted to start at loosehead, and Kane Hames left out of the 23 altogether. While he wasn't officially listed as unavailable for selection, one-test All Black Hames was said to be nursing a shoulder niggle for some time, according to assistant coach Neil Barnes.
"He's been managed through the weeks and he's been getting through his games," he said. "And it was just one of those ones where we felt that Ziggy's been playing really well when he's been coming off the bench, so we've given him an opportunity to start, and given Kane a week off to try and get his shoulder right."
That opens the door for Ross, who was a member of the victorious New Zealand side at the 2015 World Rugby Under-20 Championship, and was called into the Chiefs squad following the season-ending injury to Mitchell Graham at the Brisbane Global Tens.
On the plane for the full three-week overseas trek, Barnes labelled Ross a "very hard-working" type, and was looking forward to seeing him get an opportunity.
"He's been training really really well, we're really impressed with him, he's just a model player really, very professional in what he does."
In Graham's absence, Ross will become the sixth prop the Chiefs have called upon this year. The franchise has also used four hookers, with Nathan Harris and Liam Polwart still sidelined. On that note, Brayden Mitchell retains his place as the starting rake, after an impressive showing in his first start for the franchise in the 41-27 win over the Cheetahs in Bloemfontein last weekend, which sees former All Black Hika Elliot remain on the bench.
The forward pack also sees the return of lock Dominic Bird and loose forward Liam Messam, after both featured from the reserves last weekend. Taleni Seu drops back to the bench, where he'll be joined by Lachlan Boshier, after Mitchell Brown was ruled out of this one with concussion - suffered just four minutes into the match against the Cheetahs.
There is one change in the starting backline, with Toni Pulu - having scored a brace of tries in each of his two outings in South Africa on return from a hamstring injury - making way for Shaun Stevenson on the right wing, with Barnes noting it was a similar scenario to that of Hames.
"He's been battling along with a knee at the moment," he said of Pulu. "His form's still been good, but again Shaun's been one of these people that's come off the bench and has lit things up, so it's an opportunity for him to stake a claim for the No 1 spot. There's not a lot in it."
Anton Lienert-Brown has sufficiently recovered from the knee injury he picked up against the Cheetahs, while Stephen Donald returns to the reserves, with Alex Nankivell - who did a more than decent job in his near-hour on the park last weekend - making way.
The Chiefs sit second in the New Zealand Conference, two points adrift of the competition's only unbeaten team - the Crusaders - while the Force (2-4) are third in the Australian Conference and are coming off their second bye, as talk continues to swirl around their future involvement in the competition.
Chiefs: Damian McKenzie, Shaun Stevenson, Sam McNicol, Anton Lienert-Brown, James Lowe, Aaron Cruden (co-c), Tawera Kerr-Barlow, Michael Leitch, Sam Cane (co-c), Liam Messam, Brodie Retallick, Dominic Bird, Atu Moli, Brayden Mitchell, Siegfried Fisi'ihoi. Reserves: Hika Elliot, Aidan Ross, Sefo Kautai, Taleni Seu, Lachlan Boshier, Finlay Christie, Stephen Donald, Toni Pulu.