Mehrtens: Smith galvanising Chiefs into champs

HIGH STANDARDS: Chiefs assistant coach Wayne Smith.
HIGH STANDARDS: Chiefs assistant coach Wayne Smith.

Knowing Wayne Smith - and I think I know him pretty well - what I'm about to say will make him a little uneasy. He's the last guy to beat his own drums, or have someone else do it for him.

But I see so many similarities with what seems to be going on at the Chiefs, and what used to go on at the Crusaders.

Let's make a couple of things clear first. I'm a massive Wayne Smith fan and he picked me a lot over my career. And in highlighting his role at the Chiefs, I'm not belittling the contribution Dave Rennie is making as head coach.

But looking at the Chiefs, the way they get around their region, the way they identify with their people and tap into that strong Maori heritage, it smacks of what Smithy did with us at the Crusaders in 1997.

We'd had a bit of an unlucky year in 96 but Smithy came in and took things to a new level in terms of the heart and culture of the team. He put things in place that allowed us to identify with Crusaders, and what they were about - things that can be gimmicky if done the wrong way.

One of Smithy's strengths is making you feel it's all about the team. It's all about self-sacrifice, ownership and achieving your potential. He puts goals in place, and finds the things that are unique and special to his group.

He's also good at coming up with mottos that embody what you're doing.

At the Crusaders one year our key word was "Arete", which is a Greek concept that excellence is king. Another year we went with the Japanese term "Kaizen", which means continual small improvements. Smithy always picked something that summed up how we wanted to live our lives that season.

We'd still have our day to day objectives, but there was always an inspirational goal.

I know those intangibles helped us, and I can see what it's done for the Chiefs. Team unity is important when the chips are down. It regulates team culture, is a big driver of discipline and creates the idea that the individual is not as important as the team.

There's been talk about how the Chiefs have won "ugly" through the opening fortnight of Super Rugby, and it was something they used to say about us. Togetherness takes you a long way, and it's exemplified in a strong defensive system that comes from unity and communication.

It also shows in the unsung heroes - a guy feeling he's appreciated within the team for doing a job that may not make the commentary.

And people feel it. Chiefs fans will recognise they're watching a side that enjoys being together and wants to work as a unit to get results.

The other side of Smithy is the straight out rugby. You couldn't get a more astute, thorough, precise tactician. And he's good at getting guys to understand why. He's an educator.

I've no doubt it's why the Chiefs now set the standard in New Zealand rugby. And they'll get better and better. In Wayne Smith teams, not everyone gets it straight away - but they do eventually.

A final thought on this coaching genius: Whoever was part of the group that gave him the flick from the All Blacks in 2001 should be ashamed. They didn't do their homework, and it was a disgrace that put New Zealand rugby back a couple of years.

There's a bit of pessimism around the Crusaders, especially with news Richie McCaw is out for eight weeks. But they've shown before they can cover for the loss of a world-best player, and they can do it again.

Matt Todd is highly capable and another couple of years on from last time he was in this position. And I've always thought Luke Whitelock had the characteristics of a very good breakaway.

It's too early to panic in Christchurch. They're in a hole, and it's going to be tough to win the New Zealand conference from here. But results will take care of themselves if performance levels come up. At the moment they appear to be going through plays for the sake of it, rather than reacting to what's in front of them.

As for the Hurricanes, I wouldn't write them off yet either. That performance in Cape Town would have done a lot. They were very unlucky not to pick that up, and should take some confidence into a tough game against the Brumbies on Friday.

But it's already a very important game for them. Their season could go one of two ways, and Friday night may well tell us which path that is.

Fairfax Media