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Chiefs a mixture of Moneyball and Sonny Bill

Nonu is ahead of SBW in the race for the 12 jersey. (AP Photo/Ross Land)
Expert
18th April, 2012
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3482 Reads

When the Wallabies or the Australian and South African Super Rugby provinces sit down to their analytical work, they have at their disposal an imported system to scrutinise the statistics and video.

This is the high-tech age and the resource used is part of the modern coaching toolkit. It’s a way of trying to find that “organisation in the chaos”, as Ewen McKenzie wrote last month – a software package to identify strengths and weaknesses.

And it is, in part, the creation of Chiefs assistant coach and World Cup winner Wayne Smith.

Little mystery then, with Smith now working under respected head coach Dave Rennie, that the Chiefs are top of the table.

Inquiries to the company in question, Palmerston North-based Versuco Technologies, fleshed out Smith’s role in its formation.

In 1997, Smith and his Crusaders outfit were already trying to code their own stats, but could not match it to their video. Then, the input of a canny gentleman called George Serralach produced the Eureka moment – and the first version of the software used today.

Smith has long been reported to have the have the restless mind of an innovator. Journalist Mark Reason wrote an intriguing piece in February detailing his fascination with Moneyball, the book detailing how baseball statistics needed to be looked at in a new light, and how he used those principles to help the All Blacks win the World Cup.

Smith’s influence on the All Blacks is almost certainly a factor why Sonny Bill Williams has developed into a fine rugby player, as opposed to a league player in rugby. That road is not easy.

When Wendell Sailor arrived at breakdowns he carried the look of a man staring at a Magic Eye puzzle. Timana Tahu brought with him the tough front-on defence required in a game where the attack comes in straight lines, but was lost in the No.12 jersey when the Springboks thumped the Wallabies 53-8 in Johannesburg in 2008.

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For a while, it looked like – having got their man – the All Blacks were a little uncertain what to do with Williams.
But in his first two touches for the Chiefs, against the Highlanders in round one, Williams showed what he has developed into.

First, he took the ball to the line, and arcing that long arm of his in the manner of an uncertain teenage suitor in a cinema, wrapped it around the tackler and popped the ball out to his support. Then, just two phases later, he had leapt to his feet to take the crash ball, using his power.

It says something about the respective codes that Williams left league with a reputation as a hitman but will return – if he does – with skill being his legacy in rugby.

League types with a lack of rugby nous imagined he might cross codes and simply monster the opposition. In truth, he wasn’t even the biggest or most explosive midfielder at the Crusaders last year. At All Blacks level Ma’a Nonu is harder to tackle, and internationally Jamie Roberts (Wales) and Manu Tuilagi (England) are heavier and go harder at the gainline.

But he has brought other attributes – such as a wonderful appreciation of space in the inside channels – and developed them alongside rugby-specific details.

That is not to say he shies away from confrontation. The reason we talk about him is that he seeks out duels on the paddock. In a team game it can be reckless but it is still thrilling.

He went after the Bulls’ Pierre Spies in Nelson and the Sharks’ Ryan Kankowski in London last year. He was lucky to avoid some time in the bin for his shoulder on Kankowski but the nature of those he chooses to confront reveals his desire to make a statement.

But he is now doing that in a much more productive manner, alongside Aaron Cruden – the form No.10 in the competition – and Richard Kahui. If the Chiefs can keep these three on the park and without injuries, Williams might get a chance to go one better than he did with the Crusaders last year.

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