Pre-season injury worries for champion Chiefs
Injuries continue to hit the Chiefs in pre-season with fullback now an exposed position for the back-to-back Super Rugby champions with the New Year phase of pre-season training under way this week.
New recruit from the Crusaders and Tasman Tom Marshall is the latest injury victim, aggravating a ligament in his thumb and having surgery last Friday that will put him out for a couple of months.
The impressive Marshall signed with the Chiefs in a bid to get more game time at fullback after being used mostly as a winger by the Crusaders and with Robbie Robinson sidelined yet again, this time with a hip complaint within the next couple of weeks and Gareth Anscombe not due back until March after surgery on both shoulders the No 15 jersey is up for grabs for the start of the season on February 21.
Andrew Horrell is also reportedly carrying an injury, but such is the versatility within the Chiefs' squad that there are still several players able to pull on the No 15 jersey.
"It puts a bit of pressure on 15 but we've got Charlie [Ngatai] who has played a bit there, Hozzer [Andrew Horrell] has played a bit there, when Mils [Muliaina] gets back he's played a fair bit there and Tim [Nanai-Williams] and James Lowe can play there as well so we've got a lot of cover," head coach Dave Rennie said.
With several players in the Chiefs' 32-man squad either injured, recovering from surgery, still playing in Japan or All Blacks/internationals on leave, some young players have been brought in to fill the holes during pre-season training with a view to the future.
One such player taking his chances is Hawke's Bay and Maori All Blacks five-eighth Ihaia West, who joined the group in December, while Southlander and 2013 Blues player Marty McKenzie is due next week.
Meanwhile, in the forward pack there is still doubt that hooker Hika Elliot will play this season after neck surgery last November, and veteran rake Mahonri Schwalger is still recovering from a knee operation, although he is getting close to returning to training and took part in some scrummaging work this week.
"There [have] been some positive noises coming from the specialist in regard to a full recovery [for Elliot] and it's just the time frame now," Rennie said.
"Whether he will be right to take any part in our season is questionable so we're catching up with him later this week and some decisions will be made around that in the next couple of weeks."
Promising young Bay of Plenty hooker Nathan Harris has had pre-season training with the squad for some time and looks certain to be brought in officially to join Schwalger and Rhys Marshall as the hookers in the group if Elliott is ruled out.
While all the New Zealand Super Rugby squads are carrying injuries through the pre-season phase, Rennie admitted that this was a higher than usual toll for the Chiefs at this time of year, although several players like Nanai-Williams (groin), August Pulu (lower leg), Anscombe (both shoulders), Schwalger (knee) and Tanerau Latimer (elbow) had had scheduled remedial surgery.
"It's a big season and a lot of those guys didn't play ITM Cup to get an operation done and they're still not back in time for our season, but you've got to do it at some stage, it's the nature of the game.
"It's the nature of our season. They go for about nine months and then they've got 10 weeks with their ITM Cup team and then they get a few weeks off and they're back into it."
Other young players currently getting a taste of what it takes to be a Chief include Hawke's Bay lock Michael Allardice, Taranaki loose forward Doug Tietjens, Taranaki outside back Seta Tamanivalu and new young Waikato centre recruit out of Auckland Jordan Payne.