Chiefs proves teamwork begins at the top

PAUL CULLY
Last updated 10:21 21/01/2013
Chiefs in training
PETER MEECHAM/Fairfax NZ

ONE FOR ALL: Chiefs players carry a team-mate on a stretcher on Waihi Beach during their Coast to Coast preseason training and bonding session.

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Set about trying to uncover the ingredients required to secure a Super Rugby title and there are worse places to begin than on the sidelines of a training session as last year's winners, the Chiefs, go about their work on a paddock close to their Hamilton headquarters.

Naturally, there is talent there. All Black Richard Kahui occupies a midfield berth in the drills and stands out among the backs at 104 kilograms (a fraction more weight has been added to the frame after a good pre-season, he says a few days later). Experience is also evident, whether in the shape of halfback Brendon Leonard or new signing Ross Filipo. But it's the two educators in bucket hats running the show, cajoling the players, encouraging them to make good decisions - to think for themselves - who capture the attention. One, Wayne Smith, has a World Cup to his name. The other, Dave Rennie, collected a Super title in his first time of asking.

Conversations with the Chiefs' senior pros about the men nudge you towards the following conclusion, seen time and time again. Get recruitment right and you get yourself some good players. But get the coaching right and you give yourself a chance.

There is, of course, an elephant in the room when it comes to the Chiefs this year. Or make that two. Sonny Bill Williams and Sona Taumalolo are gone and the Chiefs know what comes next: the predictions that they won't be quite the same team without them. Highly respected hooker Mo Schwalger, who captained Samoa at the World Cup, doesn't skirt around the issue. ''I'm not taking anything away from either of those two players - they were phenomenal, especially Sonny. We won some games from those guys doing some amazing things,'' he says.

But life moves on - quickly, by necessity - and besides, the Chiefs are pretty happy they managed to keep the one that nearly got away.

''It means a lot,'' Schwalger says emphatically of Smith's decision last year to commit to the Chiefs, knocking back the determined advances of England. ''He's the sort of coach that when you need help you are able to just go up and talk to him, and you hardly have coaches like that. You are able to share what you need to be a complete player.

''It's the sort of environment you want to be in and I think the coaches build that sort of feeling that when you wake up in the morning you want to be happy when you go to work.''

For Kahui, on the comeback from another shoulder operation, the quality of the Chiefs' coaching panel supplies a commodity that every player craves.

''It provides us with a lot of confidence, a lot of belief in what we are actually doing,'' he says. ''Dave and 'Smithy', as well as [assistants] Tom Coventry and Andrew Strawbridge, they do a lot of work on our game and little bits of our game ... and they are bloody good at it.''

But knowledge is one thing. Many have it, but it means little if it is just lodged in the brains of the coaches while the players scratch their heads on the paddock. It is why co-captain Craig Clarke identifies their collaborative style of coaching as a key part of the philosophy.

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''It's very important,'' he says. ''The coaches we've got would accept not having to coach at all. If there was a session that went really, really well they'd just step right back.''

There are echoes, he agrees, of the All Blacks' structure that was successful in the lead-up to the World Cup, described by Sir Graham Henry as a ''dual management'' format in which Richie McCaw and a core of experienced players ran the team in conjunction with team management.

''We have a leadership group and we work closely with the management,'' Clarke says. ''We catch up once or twice a week to nut out if we are on the same page, if we are aligned.''

Kahui says just one benefit of empowering players is: ''When we play our game plan and the way we want to play it, we're bloody good at it, but inside that we've got people calling space, calling different opportunities and being able to act on that as well, and that makes a big difference to a team.''

But are there times when, as the Waratahs are reportedly finding under Michael Cheika, a more robust style of communication is required?

''Not the old-school rant and rave,'' Clarke says. ''That doesn't happen. But there are times when Tom, as a forwards coach, when he wants to get a bit more out of you, he'll bring that edge to his voice just to let you know that this is time for work.''

There are times in every Super campaign when a message or two needs to be reinforced, or when all these pleasant theories about leadership need to translate into taking care of business when the heat comes on or a hurdle is hit. The Chiefs had theirs last year in Brisbane. In 20-odd minutes of bruising forward work, the Reds got stuck into the visitors and came away with a 42-27 win.

''It was before a bye for us as well, so there was a bit of stewing going on after that,'' says Clarke with a half-smile. ''But it terms of how we played, it highlighted an area of our defence. We had been very very good at making a tackle and getting on our feet again and getting into our 'D' system, but they exploited an area ... we were leaving the ruck area a little bit open for that half hour they just kept coming around the fringes and doing it very effectively. So we had to learn to be able to combat that, or do what we were doing previously. So it was very good for us.''

Small consolation for the 2011 champions. They conceded their title but still feature in one chapter about last year's winners. It's no coincidence they have some handy coaches of their own.

- Sydney Morning Herald

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