The biggest selection question facing the Chiefs for next year's Super Rugby season is who will replace Sonny Bill Williams in the starting lineup?
New Zealand Maori player Charlie Ngatai, who has been recruited from Wellington and the Hurricanes, might be seen as the leading contender to play alongside Richard Kahui, while Andrew Horrell never let the Chiefs down in whatever position he played on their way to winning their first title this year.
But don't discount young rookie Bundee Aki, who 10 months ago was celebrating getting in the Chiefs development squad as his biggest achievement.
Aki admits he was in awe earlier this year when called in from the development side to train with the Chiefs alongside the likes of All Blacks midfield stars Williams and Kahui.
"At first I was star-struck being around those two and it took a while to actually get used to it, but they helped me a lot, just through training and stuff like that," Aki said.
"They talked to me a lot and basically helped me improve my game as did everything I learned from the management guys.
"That's when I really started doing the hard work and knew I could be one of the players who were actually in the squad."
It paid off and the player who admits he knew very little about the game and lacked confidence in his debut season for Counties Manukau last year was a much more confident and improved player going into this year's ITM Cup.
"Just being in the Chiefs environment built my confidence real big and just made me go into Counties wanting to learn more this year."
Counties coach and former All Black midfield star Tana Umaga helped Aki make further improvements in his game.
Now the 22-year-old Steeler is a fully fledged Chief who will confidently push for inclusion in the starting lineup in the absence of Williams, who has headed back to NRL via Japanese rugby.
Aki's contracting by the Chiefs for the 2013 season two or three months ago brought tears to his mother's eyes back in Manurewa and shock to himself but now he is determined to make the most of his opportunity as he vies with the likes of Ngatai and Horrell for a chance alongside Kahui.
"The guys that are around me, the midfielders, are all experienced players and for me it's a case of trying to learn off them, trying to see what they see in the game and try to take some stuff from that, but also trying to put my best foot forward for the coaches.
"I am determined to try and push for one of those spots, but if not and the coaches tell me what's wrong in my game and what I have to try and improve then that's what I've got to do," Aki said.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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