Toulon trip looks all go for the champion Chiefs
The Chiefs will take their All Blacks with them to France for the proposed pre-season showdown with European champions Toulon in February, but they are unlikely to play them all.
The back-to-back Super Rugby champions are still awaiting final French sign off on what is being touted by Toulon as an unofficial world club playoff but the match looks likely to go ahead on Sunday, February 2 (France time).
The New Zealand Rugby Union gave the Chiefs the green light to go ahead with plans for the fixture as long as conditions around the management of the team's All Blacks were met.
New Chiefs CEO Andrew Flexman was confident that was being done to the satisfaction of the All Blacks coaches, the NZRU high-performance unit and the New Zealand Rugby Players Association. The Chiefs were awaiting the final signed contract from Toulon, as well as official approval from the relevant French administrative bodies.
"It's looking very promising but there is not yet an unconditional green light because there is just a bit more detail to be worked through in terms of written approvals required from the likes of the FFR (French Rugby Federation) and the LNR (organisers of France's Top 14 national championship)," Flexman said.
"We've had the verbal assurances we're needing around that sort of stuff but for whatever reason, the French being the French, things aren't moving quite as quickly as we would like.
"But it's probably fair to say that we're preparing within this organisation as if we are all go."
With just under two months before a 35-man playing squad plus management is due to to fly to France on January 25, they are working hard to finalise details.
The Chiefs are working with the All Blacks coaches on a graduated reintroduction of their test players into top-flight rugby next year but billionaire Toulon owner Mourad Boudjellal is anxious for the Chiefs to take all their All Blacks on the trip.
"That's not to say they all will play. That will be very much a horses-for-courses thing."
The likes of Brodie Retallick and Liam Messam have played a lot of top-level rugby in the last two years and might be rested.
Chiefs head coach Dave Rennie has said all along that the trip has to give his team the best possible chance to win a third Super Rugby title, and that has to be the key consideration above the financial benefits the franchise stands to gain from the all-expenses-paid trip and the match fee Toulon will pay it.
"There's a lot of detail to be worked through there but we think it can be the right thing. The players are hugely motivated about it and we think the fact it is something different will be motivating.
"Secondly there is an amazing commercial opportunity for us, and that is probably our secondary consideration, to be honest, but it is attractive and within the organisation, player group, coaching group and administrative staff there is a huge amount of enthusiasm around it - it's pretty exciting," Flexman said.
The Chiefs are also talking to the IRB about the appointment of neutral officials for the match, but it will not carry any official title and they need to balance the desire to win an unofficial world club title with the realisation they don't want to be peaking before the Super Rugby season starts.
"For us it's more about the first leg in our pre-season, but having said that I don't wish to understate the significance of the game and we'll be going over there to win it.
"But we are pretty confident the various challenges can be managed."
The usual quarters and rolling substitutions for a pre-season game are unlikely to be accepted by Toulon but Chiefs officials are hoping to get some agreement on a larger-than-normal reserves bench.
The game is slated for a one-week international break in the French Top 14, with France due to play England in a Six Nations match the day before.
Toulon have few French or British test players on their roster, so will not be unduly affected by that fixture.
The Chiefs will head to Australia immediately after the match in Toulon to play their second pre-season fixture against the Reds in Toowoomba on Saturday, February 8, which means a six-day turnaround and coping with travel, change of time zones and going from winter to hot summer conditions. The third pre-season game will be against the Blues in Rotorua on Friday, February 14.
Flexman said the Chiefs coaches had set a deadline for their players to meet various strength and fitness conditioning targets in order to make the trip to France, and several players returning from injuries or surgery were likely to miss out.
The 35 players who travel will be the full squad, including wider training group, minus Japan-based Mils Muliaina and Kane Thompson and those not fit. Development players are likely to be drafted in to fill the gaps.