An experienced operator, with eight years’ previous Super Rugby head coaching experience with the Hurricanes, Cooper was already tasked with moulding a new-look side, before then finding his work cut out with a team that became decimated by injury – notably in the front row.
But it was a credit to the Chiefs that they ploughed through the adversity, uncovering some new talent along the way, and their eventual one-point away quarterfinal loss to the Hurricanes was a pretty good showing, all things considered.
Now, in his second year at the helm, Cooper and co will be determined to build on those foundations in 2019, and extend the club’s seven-year streak of playoff appearances – the longest such run by any of the New Zealand teams.
But the Chiefs will be doing it with an even more inexperienced group than last year, having lost a core group of seasoned campaigners – former skippers Liam Messam and Charlie Ngatai are now playing in France, along with lock Dominic Bird, while prop Karl Tu’inukuafe (Blues) and winger Toni Pulu (Brumbies) are plying their trade at other Super Rugby franchises.
Add in the fact co-captain Sam Cane is sidelined indefinitely as he recovers from his neck injury suffered against the Springboks in October, and it looms as another decent challenge.
The upshot is the Chiefs have given young players an opportunity. While the other Kiwi clubs all sport a sprinkling of 1980s-born players, remarkably the Chiefs’ original 38-man squad features just one (prop Kane Hames), with everyone else aged 28 or younger.
Veteran Stephen Donald was on Monday unveiled as an injury replacement for Tiaan Falcon, but the 35-year-old will certainly be the exception to the rule, with the club hoping the exuberance of youth can pay dividends, in a competition where up-tempo, expansive footy can often be well-rewarded.
Even with Cane out, there will be some solid rocks to build around, with the likes of Brodie Retallick – who this year takes on co-captaincy duties – Damian McKenzie and Anton Lienert-Brown, along with a great deal of front-row depth.
Despite Hames still battling through the concussion issue that ruled him out of the entire 2018 campaign, the Chiefs welcome back one-game All Black Atu Moli following his horrific leg injury in round one last year, have fellow national reps Nepo Laulala and Angus Ta’avao on the tighthead side, while Reuben O’Neill will be out to impress in a debut campaign after getting his name in lights when Steve Hansen named him in an extended squad in October.
The potential for a solid set-piece platform is there, and there is an abundance of raw loose forward talent which will be relied upon in the absence of their world-class openside.
Outside two quality halfbacks, McKenzie will enter his second season of steering the ship from No 10, but it’s his x-factor and game-breaking abilities which will also be heavily relied on.
With Falcon’s campaign already over due to a ruptured Achilles tendon, Donald returns for a third stint at the club, while the signing of former Melbourne Rebels playmaker Jack Debreczeni also offers some experience and versatility, with the Auckland-born 25-year-old, who’s coming off a Mitre 10 Cup campaign with Northland, also an option at second-five or fullback.
Lienert-Brown will be forced to strike up a new partnership in midfield, while there are a couple of exciting options among the outside backs, in the form of Etene Nanai-Seturo and Ataata Moeakiola.
Having broken ties with the Warriors in a messy contract split last year, Nanai-Seturo, 19, has dazzled on the world sevens stage, while Tongan-born 23-year-old Moeakiola has played three tests for Japan and even drew comparisons to Jonah Lomu in a rampaging display at the world under-20 championship in 2016.
The talent is there for the Chiefs to dazzle, it’s just how they go when it comes to the pressure moments that could tell the big story.
AT A GLANCE
CHIEFS 2019 SQUAD:
Forwards: Kane Hames, Aidan Ross, Reuben O’Neill, Nepo Laulala, Atu Moli, Sosefo Kautai, Angus Ta’avao, Nathan Harris, Liam Polwart, Samisoni Taukei’aho, Brodie Retallick (co-c), Tyler Ardron, Laghlan McWhannell, Michael Allardice, Fin Hoeata, Mitchell Brown, Taleni Seu, Sam Cane (co-c), Mitchell Karpik, Lachlan Boshier, Luke Jacobson, Pita Gus Sowakula.
Backs: Brad Weber, Te Toiroa Tahuriorangi, Jonathan Taumateine, Damian McKenzie, Tiaan Falcon (replaced by Stephen Donald), Jack Debreczeni, Alex Nankivell, Anton Lienert-Brown, Tumua Manu, Bailyn Sullivan, Solomon Alaimalo, Sean Wainui, Ataata Moeakiola, Etene Nanai-Seturo, Shaun Stevenson, Marty McKenzie.
Ins: O’Neill, McWhannell, Donald, Debreczeni (Rebels), Manu, Moeakiola, Nanai-Seturo.
Outs: Karl Tu’inukuafe (Blues),Mitchell Graham,Sam Prattley, Jeff Thwaites,Dominic Bird (Racing 92), Liam Messam (Toulon), Jesse Parete, Matt Matich, Luteru Laulala, Charlie Ngatai (Lyon), Levi Aumua (Blues), Johnny Fa’auli (Toshiba), Regan Verney, Sam McNicol, Tim Nanai-Williams (Clermont), Declan O’Donnell, Toni Pulu (Brumbies).