Augustine Pulu earns a start on two good legs
Chiefs halfback Augustine Pulu can finally run properly on two legs and the reward is his first start against the Crusaders tonight.
It is no coincidence that a successful operation to repair a long-term stress fracture in his right leg has been followed by form good enough to enable him to force his way into the Chiefs' starting lineup for their first Super Rugby match of the season.
Pulu has never previously started against the seven-time champion Crusaders as he battled through his leg problems but tonight he will keep All Black Tawera Kerr-Barlow sitting on the bench come kickoff in Christchurch.
Kerr-Barlow started all six matches against the Crusaders in the last two seasons and is likely to be there wearing the No 9 jersey again come the business end of this season.
But it speaks volumes for Pulu's tenacity and form that he is getting the start in this tough away assignment that the Chiefs are so desperate to win, not only to avenge last year's 43-15 defeat in Christchurch late last season but also to get the back-to-back champions' 2014 campaign launched with winning competition points.
"I'm pretty blessed to get this opportunity," said the 23-year-old Counties Manukau player.
"The coaches have faith in me and it has been a long time coming back from injury, but I feel all good, the leg feels better than before and I'm pretty excited about this week."
Pulu said the leg injury had plagued him for a couple of years but he had never had the time to get it fixed.
"The coaches gave me the opportunity to get it done a couple of games into the ITM Cup and I didn't want to do it to be honest but in the long run I'm pretty happy with the coaches' decision.
"My leg feels way better. It feels like I've got two legs now. Before I had so much pain going through my right leg, my fibula, so it kind of limited me in all the trainings.
"It affected my speed and I pretty much just used my right leg as a guide and tried to catch my left leg to push off with, but now I'm pushing off with both legs," he said.
Pulu said he and Kerr-Barlow always pushed each other to get better.
"We've been in there together for a couple of seasons now and me and T have created, you could say, a good environment of competition.
"T is real open so he shares with me what I can do better and what I can work on and I do the same to him.
"We don't really get down on each other as to who starts, but we do push each other and that's the best thing in this environment. Competition is a real big factor in the Chiefs and it brings the best out in you."
Chiefs head coach Dave Rennie, who said Pulu had earned the first start with his strong trial form against the Blues last Friday, a game he also started, was adamant the two halfbacks would both get early chances to start and then it would be a case of who played their way into a more regular starting spot.
The Crusaders v Chiefs match has become the premium derby of Super Rugby's New Zealand Conference after half a dozen clashes in the last two seasons, of which the Chiefs have won four, including two semifinals, and lost two. Tonight will be just as competitive.
"It's a big day for both clubs," said Rennie.
"They are in pretty good form and certainly seem a bit better oiled at this time of year than they have been in the previous two."
Rennie said those who were part of the heavy loss in Christchurch last May were still hurting from the experience but the Chiefs had not talked about it in their buildup.
"Mainly because we've got quite a lot of guys in this squad who weren't part of that and we try not to look back too much.
"We talk about what we want to achieve with this group in 2014, but for those of us who were involved [last year] we're still very grumpy about it.
"In the end we got towelled up and it's all around attitude.
"You saw three weeks later [in the semifinal] we were a different beast so we've got to make sure we get our head right going into this game and there is certainly a fair bit emotion around it and we expect the boys to front."
While it was only round one the Chiefs are aiming to be at their best to pick up an all-important conference road win.
"So there's challenges around that but we've got a pretty determined bunch and regardless of the injuries people are talking about and the players we are missing we'll take down a good squad, a side that's good enough to win if we get it right.
"Getting points early is important, especially against the other New Zealand sides because you not only score some yourself but you deny them, so those derbies are massive for us."