Chiefs culture is the essence of coaching
February 26, 2014
Robbie Fruean produced a whale of a game for the Chiefs in Christchurch © Getty Images
One of the pitfalls early in the Super Rugby competition is taking an all-embracing stance about prospects; it is still far too early to be talking about pressure on coaches and players. All of the coaches - Dave Rennie, Todd Blackadder, Sir John Kirwan, Jamie Joseph and Mark Hammett in New Zealand - are on hot seats. But that is the same every year and it is too early to start pointing the finger about why things aren't happening. Those considerations have to wait several weeks. Teams will improve while others will suffer with injuries and perform below expectations. That's the nature of the beast.
Looking at the Chiefs-Crusaders game, you can see why that is. The outcome may have been different had some early penalty goals been kicked. Did the Crusaders do enough to win that game? Yes, they did. A foot either side on a couple of penalty goals could have changed the outcome. The Crusaders have a habit of starting badly, but they are still going to be there or thereabouts.
In the Waikato, however, there is something entrenched in the Chiefs' ethos, their culture, that is compelling. That's down to coaching, but not in the sense of coaching players to catch and pass and play to a game plan. It is where guys buy into contributing to THE TEAM to the point where they live and die for each other; they get so close they care about each other. When they take the field, they are playing for the team. Creating that type of culture is the essence of coaching.
So how do coaches achieve that?
Simplicity, man-management and good people are the key. I'm sure part of the Chiefs' selection process centres around choosing good people. And from that, they pick leaders within the group and get them to step forward and take ownership.
A really good coach is someone who can give it back to the team and say: "This is yours, you guys steer it." He needs to be someone who can pull the weeds out of a really nice garden.
I think that is what the Chiefs management are doing. They've got a good game plan, they're good coaches in their own right, but their man-management skills are spot-on because they have created something where it doesn't matter who comes into the squad, he steps up by buying into the whole scheme.
They've also got some great talent-spotting skills.
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They picked up Robbie Fruean for a song because the Crusaders didn't want him; the Crusaders offered him their wider training group. The Chiefs as a result have got potentially one of the most lethal attacking weapons in Super Rugby; and didn't he look good on Friday? I'm hoping that he can kick on because he's really going to give the midfielders in New Zealand rugby a wake-up call if he can fulfill his potential.
But then you pick a guy like James Lowe, and some of the other new faces, by pulling them out of nowhere and absorbing them into that environment and all of a sudden whatever the Chiefs have proves infectious.
Liam Messam, and Aaron Cruden, the co-captains, typify the approach. They put their bodies on the line, and their defence is the key. That is when you show what you will do for the good of the team by stepping up and not letting guys get past you.
Cruden is another example of how the teams at the top of Super Rugby, year in, year out, have the best No.10s. Dan Carter has done so well for the Crusaders, Morne Steyn for the Bulls, Quade Cooper when Queensland Reds won, and now Patrick Lambie for the Sharks. And that is probably why the Blues are always struggling because they haven't been able to fill that spot.
The Highlanders capitalised on the bounce of the ball going their way in the first 20 minutes of their game with the Blues, and their effort, for me, was typified by Malakai Fekitoa, an Aucklander who wants to play for the Blues, who is down there and punishing mistakes.
Again, you talk about creating culture like the Chiefs: the Blues, if they looked inward instead of outside, could make the use of talented midfielders who are plying their trade around the rest of the country; it typifies the luckless Blues, I suppose.
Malakai Fekitoa is an Aucklander in Dunedin who wants to play for the Blues © Getty Images
The way the Blues started in Dunedin, they lacked intensity. They showed the way they finished that they had got the hurry-up, but you don't wait for the hurry-up to start playing rugby. The fact that Kirwan said their season started at half-time says everything about their preparation. Forget about the Highlanders of last year. That season is gone, even though they thumped you last year in Dunedin. The Blues had to front up, but didn't. Every point you get out of this competition is going to be hard. You cannot afford to take any team lightly.
I think Benji Marshall made the impact off the bench the Blues wanted. You don't come off the bench to make up the numbers, and he added something to the Blues. His sideways running that draws defenders, and his clever off-loads, are typical Benji Marshall and show why he was recruited by the Blues. When he got into that first-receiver role, he was dangerous.
This week, both the Blues and the Crusaders will want to get their campaigns on track. Attitudes will be re-adjusted for this game. I'd be surprised if the Blues don't start this time in much better fashion, having had a rev-up from the people behind the scenes.
The Crusaders will improve, too. They start badly so often. I can't remember when they won their first game of the season, but they always bounce back and I expect the Crusaders will get better. People will be worried about the number of injuries but that happens every year. It's all about the depth of your squad.
As the Chiefs host the Highlanders, they should remember there's no such thing as a favourite. The Highlanders will take a lot of confidence out of their first win. They played well and they have players who can punish you. Brad Thorn's loss will be tough, just for the fear their pack holds when he is in it, but Josh Bekhuis has always been a good, solid lock.
Looking at some of the other games in the competition, I couldn't help but be impressed by Israel Folau for the Waratahs. When he grows up and learns rugby, he is going to be a superstar (if he isn't already). When you get a player like that in a team, he lifts the rest like Sonny Bill Williams did when he went to the Chiefs from the Crusaders. On the first showing, the Waratahs are going to be a side that beats a few teams. They could be there at the end.
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