One of the pleasures of a Saturday morning this year has been to get up early, brew some coffee and watch the Chiefs play in the Super 15.
Former Manawatu head coach Dave Rennie has taken over the reins from long-time supremo Ian Foster, with the latter graduating to Wayne Smith’s All Blacks attack coach role; Foster and Smith have essentially swapped jobs, with the World Cup-winning coach declining the English post to become attack coach of the Chiefs, primarily in order to remain close to his elderly parents.
Small world, but when you’re the New Zealand union and you’ve got first-rate intellectual property to safeguard, it’s best to keep your cards close to your chest.
Rennie is one of those guys that strikes you as both his own man and a rugby man through and through, like Willie Anderson, Seamus Harty or Roly Meates in Ireland. Even if there was no money involved, you get the feeling that he’d be in the game at some level just because he enjoys coaching teams.
His path to the Chiefs has been unorthodox, but he made hay with provincial lightweights Manawatu, and has been able to put his own brand on a Super Rugby franchise that features genuine superstars and World Cup winners [centre pairing Sonny-Bill Williams and Richard Kahui], talented nippers [enormous tight-five forwards Brodie Retallick and Ben Tameifuna, 20 year old openside Sam Cane and 21 year old scrum-half Tawera Kerr-Barlow], and unheralded hard-working pros like Alex Bradley and club captain Craig Clarke.
He took on the Chiefs job after they had finished tenth on the log in 2011 – last of all the New Zealand franchises – and within a season he has led them to an overall second place in the regular season [first in the New Zealand conference] and a home final against the Sharks.
The Schizo Chiefs
This will be the Chiefs’ second Super Rugby final in four years. Under Ian Foster the Chiefs reached the 2009 Super Rugby final but were blown away 61-17 by a rampant Bulls side in Loftus Versfeld. The charge against Foster’s Chiefs sides was that they struggled against big packs; in fairness to him, everybody struggled against that Bulls pack. The Waikato men were up against it in the final, flying from Auckland to Pretoria [12200km and a 10-hour time difference] to play a bang-in-form Bulls on their home turf, at altitude, in front of a stadium packed with Afrikaaners in a game reffed by a South African, Jonathan Kaplan. It’d be a huge ask for any team in the world.
However, they absolutely collapsed the next season, finishing eleventh on the log and only winning four games. As previously mentioned, they could only improve by one place the next season , Foster’s last in charge, described by one website as “a disastrous season for the talent-stacked Chiefs“. It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly where it all went wrong, but a run of injuries in their backline – definitely the strength of the side – played a major part.
After that disappointing 2011 term, Rennie’s approach as a first season coach has been textbook. Significant personnel changes took place between the time Foster left and the new season started, as will always happen in New Zealand after a Rugby World Cup. While Rennie hasn’t overseen a wholescale purge of the remainders of the old regime, he has given chances to impress to some fringe players, brought in hungry, hard working forwards from down the ranks in the NPC, eased the reliance on players who had become hardy perennials and turned around the attitude and approach of an outfit who had grown stale.
Where The Changes Were Made
Tana Umaga had signed for the province in October 2010 as a 37-year old on the back of his return to New Zealand rugby with Counties Manukau in the ITM Cup, and while he started reasonably well, a series of nagging calf injuries saw utility back Dwayne Sweeney filling in at No12 for much of the second half of the season. Fullback hero Mils Muliaina suffered a serious back injury, as did outhalf Stephen ‘Beaver’ Donald. Outside of injuries, Sitiveni Sivivatu announced his post-RWC11 move to Clermont Auvergne in late March, which must have had an impact on his form. The Chiefs were hardly motoring at that stage, and he knew he’d be on the other side of the world in seven or eight months; it’s easy for your head to be somewhere else under those circumstances. Lelia Masaga didn’t even need that excuse; he’d regular turn off in the middle of matches anyway. The top try-scorer in Super Rugby in 2009 is an infuriating player in terms of concentration and consistency: along with Rene Ranger, he can be one of the most breathtaking openfield runners in New Zealand rugby, but too often his decision-making falls flat on its face, and he’s got a brutal tendency to drift out of matches early.
However, for all the backline injuries and unrest Foster’s biggest problem seemed to be that he neither was, nor had, a quality forwards’ coach. There were decent players in every row of the Chiefs pack – many of whom are still regulars in Rennie’s 2012 teams – but under Foster they lacked aggression and a sense of self-reliance: they knew that the backline were the big show in town, and that their job was just to get them the ball. As a result, it looked like they were playing rugby by numbers up front, much as the Leinster packs of 2005-07 did.
The turnabout in the pack has been Rennie’s biggest accomplishment, and it has come through a mixture of some astute recruitment, genuine competition for places and a mix of experience and youth on the personnel front … and just a bigger emphasis on good forward play, and the aggression that it requires. Rennie brought in Samoan hooker and captain Mahonri Schwalger when he was axed by the Highlanders in favour of former Wellington Hurricanes mainstay Andrew Hore, giving an alternative to Hika Elliot in the No2 jersey. Tough semi-pros like No8 Bradley [a 30-year old plumber from Waikato] and second-row Mike Fitzgerald [a 25-year old builder from Manawatu] were drafted in to give more depth, and recent New Zealand U20s Tameifuna, Retallick and Cane – whom Rennie knew well from coaching them at the Junior World Championships – were given a chance to shine … and did.
However, the key personnel changes came at the hinge of the team, Nos 9-12. Tawera Kerr-Barlow came in for All Black Brendan Leonard at scrum-half, the arriving Aaron Cruden replaced the departing ‘Beaver’ Donald at outhalf, and Sonny Bill Williams came in for the retired-again Tana Umaga at No12.
SBW is an enormous upgrade over either a 37-year old Umaga or utility back Dwayne Sweeney, who ended the 2011 season in the No12 jersey. Post RWC11-win, Cruden’s confidence is sky high, in stark contrast to how Beaver wilted under the shelling he got in the press following his poor performance for the All Blacks against the Wallabies in Hong Kong in October 2010; and Kerr-Barlow has the untrammeled confidence of youth, and is simply in much better form than Leonard at the moment.
What’s That? Loads Of Foreigners In A NZ Team?
One of the key parts of his team is his heavily used non-New Zealand-qualified brigade: Samoan captain Schwalger, Tongan superstar loosehead Sona Taumalolo, Samoan test lock Kane Thompson and Fijian-born wingers Asaeli Tikoirotuma [who bagged four tries against the Auckland Blues, equalling the Super Rugby record] and Maritino Nemani. Tikoirotuma has made in living in New Zealand for some years, but he’s a Fijian: he was born there, went to school there and represented Fijian U18s. Nemani’s father captained Fiji, and Maritino represented Fiji as an U20 in the 2010 Junior World Championships. He’s a Fijian.
Four of those players [the exception is Nemani] start for the Chiefs tomorrow in the final. That’s worth bearing in mind the next time your friendly neighbourhood Kiwi mentions the number of non-Irish qualified players starting for the provinces. Sure, it’s not the norm for a Kiwi franchise by any means, but the Chiefs are – by definition – the best New Zealand team in the competition, and they’re starting a fair few non-New Zealand-qualified players in the biggest game of their season.
Two Key Additions
Sonny-Bill Williams joined the Chiefs after RWC11, announcing his move from the Canterbury Crusaders on the day before the Super Rugby squad announcements [the last day of October]:
“Williams kept everyone guessing right up to yesterday’s deadline before being confirmed by the New Zealand Rugby Union as having re-signed for one more year and nominating the Chiefs as his new team.”
Williams was born and brought up in Auckland, and was apparently keen to move closer to his mother, who still lives there. He wasn’t at all keen on the earthquakes he had experienced in Christchurch, and while he did more than his bit in raising money for charities that helped survivors of the ‘quake, he’s not a native Cantabrian and had only been living there for a year or so. He’s had a peripatetic life, moving from Auckland to Sydney as a 17-year old, then on to Toulon before arriving in Christchurch, so moving on from there wasn’t entirely unexpected.
Ma’a Nonu announced that he had signed for the Blues in early July, which essentially took the Auckland-based team out of the equation. Waikato is less than two hours drive away from the north island’s biggest city, and the Chiefs were prepared to humour his boxing sideline to the cost of two fights per year.
Aaron Cruden had struggled a little for gametime with the Hurricanes in 2011, but it seems more likely that his move north was motivated by the magnetic effects of the two coaches at the respective franchises: Mark Hammett at the ‘Canes pushed him away, and Rennie at the Chiefs drew him in. Hammett seemed to rub a lot of people up the wrong way – he dropped beer drinkin’, fun havin’ Andrew Hore and outstanding centre Ma’a Nonu and then axed them from the club, while Hosea Gear left after eight years following his omission from the All Blacks’ RWC11 squad. Then Piri Weepu opted to leave, despite the Hurricanes management being very keen to keep him on board; he was unhappy with the treatment of Nonu, and unhappy with the way that Hammett was operating. In contrast, Cruden had had positive experiences playing under Rennie for the Manawatu Turbos in NPC, and was very happy to go and play for him when the offer came in.
The mobility between franchises can be overstated: bar Williams – a notorious drifter – pretty much every headline move involved disaffected veterans leaving the Hurricanes. Still, it’s difficult to underestimate the improvement that Cruden and Williams have wrought.
Delivering On The Hype
Williams, in particular, has been outstanding; in The Mole’s opinion, he’s been the single most potent attacking force in Super Rugby this season. The numbers [provided by ESPN Scrum.com] are well worth looking at:His performances over the season have been simply phenomenal; even when you’re rounding down to make an average performance per game, they’re still impressive as hell. Obviously they’re just numbers and only tell you so much – maybe some of the tackling was rubbish, for example, or maybe some of the running metres came in garbage time against beaten teams. Still, they’re hugenumbers.
Basically, Williams averaged at least one big break through the defense every single game … with total 167 runs and 20 total clean breaks, that’s an average of 1 clean break every 8.35 runs. Three teams kept a ‘clean sheet’ against him in terms of preventing a clean break: the Lions [surprisingly], his former employers the Crusaders and final opponents the Natal Sharks.
The number of defenders beaten is even more impressive. In the No12 channel, the most congested and keenly contested position in the three-quarterline, he has averaged three defenders beaten every single game over the course of a 17-game season. Again, when you look at the number of runs he has made , that’s a defender beaten about one of every three runs. Get outta here!
The Mole is a big believer that one of the most important unpublished statistics in rugby is metres made after a broken tackle. It’s a huge deal. Compare the numbers that Luke Fitzgerald and Sean O’Brien put up against Wales in 2011: Fitzgerald ran 13 times for 110m [8.4m/carry] beating 0 defenders, while O’Brien ran 12 times for 48m [4m/carry], but beat 6 defenders. Anybody who remembers that match will remember O’Brien carrying phenomenally well and Fitzgerald having an absolute mare.
Breaking tackles, getting in behind the opposition defense and running hard, making those line-breaks count, is a massive deal … and Williams is outstanding at it.
Where To Next?
“We believe we will have a stronger team next year, we’re already looking at filling some holes to give us depth.”
Rennie’s a convincing interviewee, as you’d expect, but he’s stretching his listeners’ credulity with this remark. Two of the Chiefs’ three most impressive individual contributors are off next season: Superstar Sunny-Bull heads off to Japan for a lucrative couple of months before returning for a second stint of as-yet-undefined duration in ower gehm-slash-the northern code. SBW gets a bit of gentle stick here – hit with a carrot, so to speak – but he seems like a genuinely nice guy and is an all-world calibre athlete.
He wants to cram his career full of experiences, emotional highs and make big money while he’s at it … what harm? He turned down an enormous offer from Toulon to go back and contend for a place in the All Blacks RWC11 squad, and was a productive member of the outfit, starting games in a couple of different positions. While he was a huge media draw and the focus of an awful lot of attention, he didn’t sulk or pout when he was selected to sit on the bench in both the semi-final and the final. All his teammates seem to like him.
Taumalolo heads to Perpignan; no other club in France is as obsessed over/in love with powerful forward play, so if he can reproduce anything near his best form, he’ll be a huge hit in the Stade Aime Giral. The guy is an archetypal happy warrior – he doesn’t back down from anybody, and he’s as happy going toe-to-toe with his opposite number in the scrum as he is with ball in hand.
Rennie is going to find it pretty much impossible to adequately fill these guys’ boots – where are you going to get a loosehead prop who’ll give you nine tries a season? How do you replace a world class No12? Those are questions for next season. Tomorrow, they’ll be putting it on the line in Waikato Stadium, and The Mole will be watching with interest.