Dave Rennie has All Blacks coach credentials
April 30, 2014
Why is Dave Rennie (right) in the crosshairs? © Getty Images
What a roller-coaster ride coaching is. If you look at the headlines in Super Rugby so far this year I think nearly every coach has been in the crosshairs and we are only just over halfway through the competition.
We are fickle as fans and supporters. We seem to want a villain and we want a hero, and how dare we even contemplate Chiefs coach Dave Rennie being in the hot seat. It is almost comical. The guy has got All Blacks coach credentials and there are people now saying the Chiefs are in the hot seat.
He's got an unfortunate situation with a lot of injuries, but that is the nature of the game. Injuries come about for two reasons: purely by accident or, when there are a large amount of them, maybe sides should be looking at their training. That might have something to do with it. Injuries are a part of the game, and you do plan for them, but when they do happen they test your squad.
Hurricanes 35-21 Reds (video available only in Australia)%]
And if anyone knows about roller-coasters it must be Mark Hammett and the Hurricanes. I recall writing early in the season that the Hurricanes didn't look like they knew what they were doing and they had bricks in their feet, but it is clear that they get it now. But it has taken time. If you are going to change systems and buy into a whole new way of playing, the players have to play it to understand it.
The rugby season is so long and it is about how you are playing in June and July, not February, that really matters. It has come good for them and they are looking very, very dangerous. I don't think there's any team in this competition they wouldn't threaten.
For me the talking point of the week has been Steve Hansen's comments regarding the mental fortitude of second-tier players who are heading off overseas. Hansen was speaking in the wake of Bundee Aki making his announcement, but at the same time he is bringing back Sonny Bill Williams so there is quite clearly a road block for the Chiefs player.
It's almost hypocrisy to bring Sonny Bill Williams back in a World Cup year when he has gone away to make money, via Japan and then in the NRL. It almost guarantees him a seat to the World Cup. But I'm seeing a kid like Malakai Fekitoa, a 21-year-old, an absolute standout who has been since he was 19. In Auckland, they have known about this guy coming through; now he is just carving up teams at Super Rugby level. With him emerging, SBW has got no guaranteed flight to London, which is brilliant, because that is what we want to see.
Once upon a time it was a case of "who were the centres?". We didn't really have any specialists. We had Richard Kahui and others, but they all upped and left. And there's Conrad Smith and Ma'a Nonu with no real back-ups. Well now there are other kids putting their hands up and saying "I don't care who you are, I'll get out and play".
Fekitoa has got superstar written all over him. It would be unfair to compare someone with SBW, but Fekitoa is not of his ilk. He's completely different but defensively he is absolutely rock solid and on attack he is just dynamite.
The sooner he gets into the All Blacks environment the better for New Zealand rugby. He will thrive in that environment, we know that, and it is scary to think that he has got another couple of levels to go up in his game. You can spend all the money in the world on the great athletes and bring them in 10 months before a World Cup campaign starts, but there is never any guarantee of places.
On one hand we've got the professionalism and a little bit of hypocrisy over the way the New Zealand Rugby has gone about it, but on the other hand we've got this clear pathway of a kid who's gone through the system now coming out the other side. New Zealand Rugby generally has this conveyor belt of players who just keep coming up when we need them to come up, and that's fantastic.
Sharks 14-34 Highlanders (video available only in Australia)%]
I think the Highlanders, in beating the Sharks in Durban, were sublime. We talk about on attack and on defence, but on defence they have really upped their game. This has Jamie Joseph written all over it. When he came to coaching, it was all about the grit he showed as a player - the roll-your-sleeves-up and get-stuck-in approach.
He was a hard taskmaster as a player, and he has taken that into coaching. There's no ego about the way they have gone about their business, which is really good to see. He's probably learned a few things. He went away from his core values last year, but he has gone back to them this year and the Highlanders have been brilliant. Even to produce a driving maul try against the Sharks was a statement, and their faces at the end of the game said it all.
The Blues showed some good touches and their leaders, Ma'a Nonu and Jerome Kaino, really stepped up their game against New South Wales Waratahs. The more experienced guys in the team did, too, which was a step in the right direction. What they did really well was shut down Kurtley Beale, and that took Israel Folau out of the game because Beale is the man who sets up Folau. You shut Beale down and he doesn't create for Folau. That was a masterplan.
Blues 21-13 Waratahs (video available only in Australia)%]
They stuck to their game plan and it paid off for them. And as I noted last week, Lolagi Visinia had been road-blocked by Benji Marshall; Benji's gone now and Visinia is back starting as a result, and he scored the first try while playing a big part in setting up the second. And it was another demonstration of the old conveyor belt I mentioned earlier.
It has been interesting hearing Nick Mallett's criticisms of the lack of ball skills on display from South African teams in Super Rugby. What this has highlighted to me, and Murray Mexted can take the kudos for this, is the value of setting up something like the International Rugby Academy of New Zealand (IRANZ).
A lot of coaches look around and ask where they can upskill themselves, and there are not a lot of places for that to happen. Murray's been running that IRANZ program for more than 10 years now, and it has helped coaches advance while players also learn what it would be like at a whole new level.
I think what Murray has done has been under-valued, but even the South Africans are sending coaches over and I think New Zealand Rugby should take more note of what he has done. I know it is a private business, but he's done it for all the right reasons.
When I hear the likes of Nick Mallett making these comments, I look for the solution they offer; and in New Zealand's case, it is IRANZ. We have the fix-it there which supplements the good rugby knowledge that abounds in New Zealand.
I'm sure the knowledge is in South Africa, but the autocratic approach which tends to be used there doesn't always work - especially with new-generation players. Coaching is about giving a player an idea and letting him understand it and making it his own. Screaming at new-generation players on the old Sergeant Major model doesn't work.
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