The Chiefs have employed 46 different players throughout their 2021 campaign to date, from experienced All Blacks such as Anton Lienert-Brown to 20-year-old debutants like Josh Lord. With only 38 spots on the roster for next year, however, not everyone will have the opportunity to represent the Chiefs next year.
One man who’s made a significant impact since joining the side is Tonga representative Zane Kapeli, who was formally called into the squad ahead of the Chiefs’ match with the Blues in the final round of the Super Rugby Aotearoa season.
The openside flanker was one of the best performers in the match and made one particularly bone-rattling tackle on Blues pivot Otere Black, but the 28-year-old has been employed primarily as a second-rower in the matches since, with the Chiefs suffering their traditional injury woes in the forward pack.
Laghlan McWhannell was ruled out for a second year in a row before the season even began while Tupou Vaa’i, Josh Lord, Naitoa Ah Kuoi and Mitch Brown have all spent time on the sidelines in 2021.
Brodie Retallick, meanwhile, is on sabbatical for the season – although he’s touched back down in New Zealand after a campaign in Japan’s Top League and will be available for New Zealand’s July tests.
Of the players contracted at the beginning of the campaign, Vaa’i is currently the only one fit to play in the Chiefs’ final game of the year against the Waratahs, which has again opened the door for Kapeli to get some valuable minutes.
“He’s just made every post a winner since he’s been in the team,” head coach Clayton McMillan said of the utility forward. “He’s a great character, I’ve got to know him pretty well over at Bay of Plenty and last year he ended up pretty much effectively filling the same role at lock for us.
“He keeps telling me he’s an international level 7. I told him he’s a great hybrid.”
Sadly for Kapeli, even a standout performance against the bottom-placed Waratahs likely won’t be enough to cement him a spot in the squad for next year.
“Unfortunately, we’re pretty full in our forwards space. He’s well aware of that,” McMillan said. “I’ve had a lot of discussions with Zane around, unfortunately – I’m not sure if ‘unfortunately’ is the word – but a lot of forward contracting is done in advance of the season and with a little bit of time up our sleeves, Zane might have been able to push his way in there. He’s been a really solid performer for us.
“I’ve had the benefit of working with him for a few years so always known that he’s been capable and he’s demonstrated that over the last three or four weeks where he’s just taken all those challenges around playing multiple positions and having to learn multiple roles and just gone on about his business and performed really well.
“And he’s also really well-liked in the environment. He’s got a bit of character about him so if we aren’t able to pick him up one way or another, hopefully his performances have raised the attention of other people.”
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) June 11, 2021
With Retallick set to return in 2022, the Chiefs should be well-stocked in the second row. Vaa’i, like Retallick, is also on the books until the next World Cup while Ah Kuoi will certainly be retained after some excellent performances earlier in the season.
Lord is another who’s prospered with more game time than he might have anticipated this season and Brown is always an option to slot in at lock, which makes Kapeli’s retention exceptionally difficult – but he may find luck elsewhere around New Zealand.
Assuming Moana Pasifika are officially given the green light in the coming weeks, the new team would be a natural fit for Kapeli – who’s notched up 10 appearances for the ‘Ikale Tahi since he debuted in 2018.
Otherwise, Kapeli was contracted with the Highlanders last season but didn’t feature in any gameday squads and was also practising with the Hurricanes during this year’s pre-season.
This weekend poses one last opportunity in Super Rugby for the Tongan utility to force selectors around the country to take notice.
The Chiefs’ match with the Waratahs kicks off at 7:45pm AEST (9:45pm NZT) on Saturday night.
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