Chiefs' Bundee Aki back with 'brothers'
Bundee Aki has missed his "brothers" and can't wait to get his first touch of the ball in a match in five months at Waikato Stadium tomorrow night.
The Counties Manukau second five-eighth started 12 games in the No 12 jersey for the Chiefs in his debut season in 2013, as well as coming off the bench in the Super Rugby semifinal and final wins, but he has been sidelined for the first part of the 2014 season.
Aki also appeared in every national provincial premiership game for the Steelers but underwent reconstructive surgery on his shoulder immediately after the they lost their semifinal, and it did not turn out to be a routine repair.
The surgeon had to staple his labrum back together and remove some of his AC joint, leaving Aki with a six-month rehab to get back with the Chiefs.
"I'm back earlier than I thought I would be. I think when I play my first game it will be five months, but I've done a lot of running and a lot of contact and testing of my shoulder and it feels good," Aki said.
"It's been a lot of hard work going through my rehab time but it is good to be back. The lungs are burning a bit at training but it's a good feeling and the boys have welcomed me back really well.
"I'll try and get involved [in tomorrow night's game] as early as I can and try and make sure that when the opportunity does come my way I get into that game, make sure I feel right and get the pace of the game again because it's been a while."
Aki returns at a time when first-five Aaron Cruden (broken thumb) is sidelined for the first time since he has been at the Chiefs and, with other midfield backs Charlie Ngatai and Robbie Fruean still on the disabled list, he steps straight into a completely reshuffled backline.
The Chiefs have made eight changes to the team that drew 43-43 with the Cheetahs in Bloemfontein last weekend - five personnel changes and three positional ones.
The New Zealand Conference leaders will be hoping he can bring some extra sting to attack and defence as they seek their first win in four games, having lost to the Force and drawn with the Bulls and Cheetahs.
"I wanted to get back to help the brothers and the brothers have done really well, set high standards and I've got big shoes to fill."
Aki did much of his rehab alongside Gareth Anscombe, who had off-season surgery on both his shoulders but got back quicker and has been in fine form at fullback.
Now the two will pair up for the first time in the five-eighths with Anscombe getting his first start in his specialist No 10 jersey in Cruden's place.
"Gareth has been training really hard and we've been working really well together this week.
"Obviously it is a new combination but with the good coaches we have we're going really well at the moment, and hopefully we can put it out on the park this weekend.
Other changes in the backline see Mils Muliaina replace the injured Asaeli Tikoirotuma (knee) on the left wing and Tom Marshall switch from second-five to his preferred fullback spot for the first time since joining the Chiefs this year.
In the forwards, co-captain Liam Messam is given a pre-planned break on the bench, meaning lock Brodie Retallick will captain the team with Anscombe vice-captain, Kane Thompson replaces Messam at No 8, Tanerau Latimer replaces Mike Fitzgerald at blindside flanker, Fitzgerald moves to lock in place of Matt Symons and Jamie Mackintosh replaces Pauliasi Manu at loosehead prop.
Head coach Dave Rennie said they had rethought their plan of resting Messam from a starting role after Cruden broke his thumb but in the end decided to stick with it and have faith in the leadership group they had including Retallick.
"He's part of our leadership group, Brodie, he's a demanding character, has got a pretty sharp tongue and will wag the finger and demand," Rennie said.
"And often those big tight forwards want you to play at the right end of the field so he'll give the right messages, we believe, and along with Tanerau who is a big part of our leadership group also."