Taranaki prop Shane Cleaver has finally put pen to paper and agreed terms with the Chiefs.
The 24-year-old was one of two new front-rowers announced by the Hamilton-based franchise yesterday, the other being New Zealand under-20 and Hawke's Bay prop Ben Tameifuna, who coach Dave Rennie has called a "project" for the future.
Cleaver's elevation to Super Rugby ranks comes off the back of a strong ITM Cup season after he was switched back to his specialist tighthead position.
The former New Zealand age-group player's career looked like it was going to stop at provincial level a couple of seasons ago under the tutelage of former Taranaki coach Adrian Kennedy.
That changed when Colin Cooper arrived back as Taranaki coach last year. With Cooper wanting to develop Michael Bent's technique at tighthead, Cleaver was switched across the scrum.
While it didn't suit, the switch back to the No3 jersey this year paid off as Cleaver undoubtedly played the best rugby of his career.
Not only has his scrummaging improved, there has been a marked improvement in his ball-handling skills, work rate and effectiveness at the breakdown.
Cleaver, who has been in negotiations for a couple of weeks after speaking with new Chiefs assistant coach Tom Coventry, never expected a contract offer, despite his form.
"Nah, not at all," he said yesterday. "I was happy enough with how things went for me in the ITM Cup but I had no idea I was going to pick anything up. It was quite a nervous time."
If an offer was to come, Cleaver thought it would be from the Hurricanes or the Highlanders, but those doors appeared shut when inquiries were made by his agent.
"It was a real surprise, that the Chiefs were interested," he said.
Cleaver credits Taranaki's unofficial scrum coach Michael Collins and skills coach Clark Laidlaw as being influential in his improved form. His inclusion has bolstered the Taranaki influence in the Chiefs squad that now includes Craig Clarke, Scott Waldrom and Mahonri Schwalger.
With Ben May heading south to the Hurricanes, the Chiefs' likely starting props appear to be Ben Afeaki and Toby Smith, with back-up coming from Sona Taumalolo, Tameifuna and Cleaver.
"We've done a fair bit of work over the last months, screening through all the NPC stuff and there's probably a real shortage of tighthead props around the country," Rennie said.
Cleaver's deal brings the number of Taranaki players with confirmed Super Rugby deals to 13. Andre Taylor, Beauden Barrett, Jason Eaton, Bent, Blade Thomson and James Broadhurst are heading to the Hurricanes, while Kurt Baker, Andrew Hore and Jarrad Hoeata join the Highlanders.
Hooker Laurence Corlett, who was in the Hurricanes this year, has heard nothing, while question marks still hang over Jayden Hayward.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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