The Wrap: The unloved Super Rugby coaches strike back

Geoff Parkes Columnist

By Geoff Parkes, Geoff Parkes is a Roar Expert

 , , , ,

136 Have your say

    Rugby watching was made more difficult this weekend due to the 100th anniversary celebrations of one of the world’s venerable, hallowed institutions of learning, Taumarunui High School.

    School reunions are equal measures fun and terror. People with fading memories and failing eyesight trying not get caught out peering at the name-tags of old schoolmates they are supposed to know, and others eyeing off ex-girlfriends and boyfriends either ruing a missed opportunity or grateful for a bullet dodged.

    And what about the now ripped, extroverted ex-geek, with multiple properties, helicopters and partners who, back then, couldn’t even pay a girl to share his sandwiches lest a pimple explode at an inopportune moment?

    Unsurprisingly, alcohol proved to be a great leveler and the 600+ crowd mingled with enthusiastic good cheer, but when the party was over it was a relief on Sunday to finally be able to breathe out, allow the gut to resume its normal resting position and focus on trying to make sense of Round 3 Super Rugby action.

    It seems as if most people with an opinion in New Zealand consider Colin Cooper to be the weakest of the five Super Rugby coaches – a step down from predecessor Dave Rennie, lacking presence and likely overseer of the Chiefs’ decline in 2018.

    Similarly, many fans have been quick to rate new Reds coach Brad Thorn as out of his depth – too green, too forward focused, too ignorant of new tackle laws, too rugby league, too New Zealand and too anti-Quaded.

    Reds coach Brad Thorn

    ( AAP Image/Dave Hunt)

    Frustrated Waratahs fans put their coach, Daryl Gibson, on notice well before the season started – deliver results before Round 5 or else don’t bother coming in to work.

    This weekend, however, provided an opportunity to look at all three coaches in a different light and, at the same time, consider the expectations that rugby fans have of coaches and whether these are realistic or not.

    What say the softly-spoken Cooper is a man who suffers because humility and reluctance to reside in the media limelight is mistaken for lack of rugby smarts?

    What of Thorn, a man marked as heartless in his treatment of Quade Cooper, but is merely determined to ‘clean the house’ to take a step backwards to move forwards, and establish the type of team culture that he knows first-hand has proven successful at the Brisbane Broncos and the All Blacks?

    And what if Gibson isn’t the clueless buffoon many paint him as, but was handed a team suffering a post-Super Rugby championship hangover, minus some of its hardest working and world-class players like Jacques Potgeiter and Adam Ashley-Cooper?

    Super Rugby is long, arduous and attritional. If travel and injury strike at the wrong time, sides can fall into a hole that can be almost impossible to climb out of.

    On that basis, no coach can allow themselves any comfort after two rounds, however it is fair to say that all three – Cooper, Thorn and Gibson – are entitled this weekend to feel that the knockers have been put back in their place.

    Waratahs coach Daryl Gibson.

    (AAP Image/ David Rowland)

    After a tough trip to Christchurch and an even tougher one up SH1 to Auckland (more on that later), the loss of his tall timber before the match, and last-minute positional changes, the Chiefs would have been excused a loss to a Blues side that everyone has marked as this year’s improvers.

    It was not to be, the Chiefs dominant early and eventually converting enough of their opportunities – and defending manfully – to clinch the game 27-21.

    Thorn’s task seemed even more forlorn, facing the favoured Brumbies with two of his first-choice forwards out due to suspension after the Reds’ horror trip to Melbourne. But despite not scoring a try, the Reds won going away, 18-10, off the back of a well organised and efficient defensive line and a willingness to play field position at the right times.

    Gibson’s Waratahs didn’t win, but a 24-24 draw in Durban against the well-rested Sharks was surely as good as a victory. It wasn’t always pretty, and their scrum looks a fragile proposition while they await the return of Sekope Kefu, but any Waratahs fan who isn’t happy with six competition points after opening matches against South African opposition isn’t being fair-dinkum.

    In fact, you could argue that all three sides – the Chiefs, Reds and Waratahs – were far from as cohesive and fluent as what their coaches and fans would like them to be. But it was something else that all three sides had in common which papered over any deficiencies and ensured their results.

    It is clear that – whatever fans might think of the coaches – the players at all three franchises are ‘in tight’ with their respective programs, and are playing for their coach.

    In itself that is not enough to win the competition, but it is certainly a solid base from which to launch an assault on the summit when other factors such as depth in the playing roster and quality at the top of it, and luck, align.

    And it is most certainly a strong indication that none of these sides – in particular, their coaches – are as hapless as what the naysayers would have us believe.

    A month ago Gregor Townsend was in the same boat, handed the reins in the wake of the impressive Vern Cotter, charged with continuing Scotland’s march up the world rugby rankings. Yet after a comprehensive thumping in Cardiff, it seemed to many that whatever Cotter had Townsend didn’t have, and Scotland’s dawn was a false one.

    If it is true that the court of public opinion decrees that a coach is only as good as his last game, Townsend’s elevation last week from the outhouse to the penthouse, was as swift and decisive as his players’ first half demolition of England.

    While Cooper, Thorn and Gibson’s achievements were more modest than Townsend’s Calcutta Cup success, all three coaches should today be congratulated for getting the job done just as heartily as they have been bagged for being deficient.

    Don’t hold your breath waiting however, because balance and perspective are not often in evidence where assessment of coaches is concerned.

    The question begs to be asked – just how much influence does a coach have over the fortunes of his team? How could Townsend, a coaching dunce in Cardiff, suddenly transform into a coaching genius back in Edinburgh, against a side most pundits considered to be superior?

    How could Thorn, seemingly a fish out of water in Melbourne, with a depleted side, suddenly get the better of the Brumbies, a side that almost everyone believes (believed?) will top the Australian conference? What magic did he uncover and apply in a week?

    The answer, of course, is that professional coaches at the elite level are almost universally not dunces, just as they almost certainly do not possess superhuman qualities or secrets known to them only that might provide them with a unique edge.

    Joe Powell Brumbies Super Rugby Union 2017

    (AAP Image/SNPA, Ross Setford)

    Professional clubs or franchises are complex organisations operating on multiple levels, where the contributions of many highly trained and skilled individuals, from conditioners and medical staff to performance analysts and specialist coaches – and yes, the head coach – all come together to present the best match-day 23 and the best chance of success on a given day.

    These clubs are also largely homogenous, and the differences between them – while they are important – are typically at the margins, and often reflect differences in underlying club culture (eg the difference between the Crusaders and the Blues) more than any direct influence of the head coach.

    Consider also the role of rugby directors and bean counters, working to fit the best possible combination of contracted, un-contracted and prospective players into a salary cap, that will deliver optimal results not only this year but next year and the one after.

    And what of the players? Was it really the influence of Thorn that was behind Scott Higginbotham and Lukhan Tui’s brain explosions in Melbourne? I’d suggest as much as it was Gibson’s doing that saw Ned Hanigan position himself on the touchline in the 81st minute and run over the top of Raymond Rhule.

    Do we all start chattering this week about Brumbies coach Dan McKellar, and how in two weeks he has taken his outfit from conference favourite to a side lacking in confidence and penetration, who can’t even get their pet play, the lineout maul drive, right?

    The answer to that question is, of course not. McKellar has not become a poor coach overnight, just as Thorn suddenly has found all of the answers. The truth is that where there is a winner and a loser the temptation is to amplify both the credit and the blame, and to draw conclusions that are too often exaggerated – in either direction.

    It’s a global phenomenon too by the way. How much credit does the Jaguares kicking coach take when Nicolas Sanchez is in the groove slotting kicks from all angles? I bet he was running for cover yesterday, disclaiming all responsibility for Sanchez’ second-half penalty attempt against the Hurricanes, quite possibly the worst ever place kick in the history of Super Rugby.

    A final word this week for Auckland and the horrible chore that is trying to enter or leave the city by car. Auckland residents, of course, would have us believe that the congestion is merely a function of increasing numbers of people wanting to live in their fair city.

    Which might be fair enough, but then how come, if so many new people are moving to Auckland, none of them are decent Super Rugby players?

    Geoff Parkes
    Geoff Parkes

    Geoff is a Melbourne-based sports fanatic and writer who started contributing to The Roar in 2012 under the pen name Allanthus. His first book, A World in Union Conflict; The Global Battle For Rugby Supremacy, was released in December 2017 to critical acclaim. For details on the book visit Meanwhile, his twin goals of achieving a single figure golf handicap and owning a fast racehorse remain tantalisingly out of reach.

    Rebuild announcement

    Have Your Say

    If not logged in, please enter your name and email before submitting your comment. Please review our comments policy before posting on the Roar.

    Oldest | Newest | Most Recent

    The Crowd Says (136)

    • March 5th 2018 @ 7:38am
      Daveski said | March 5th 2018 @ 7:38am | ! Report

      Maybe you picked a good weekend to miss a few matches. Chiefs Blues and Bulls Lions were clearly better than every other match though the afternoon games in sunny Tokyo are almost always entertaining.

      Gibson is constantly listed as one of the Tahs ( numerous ) weaknesses but I’ll give him this season. I think he might come good with Simon Cron’s help.

      That other Tahs weakness the scrum wasn’t quite as bad as made out though admittedly the Sharks don’t have the strongest one either.

      For what it’s worth I thought with Robbo/Ryan it was Ok, got weather when it was Robbo/Tawake then got better again with HJH/Tawake and Roach. Two weeks in a row, a maligned and young Tahs replacement front row has survived a testing scrum at the death so I think that’s something to at least be proud of and feel a little optimism about.

      • Columnist

        March 5th 2018 @ 7:58am
        Geoff Parkes said | March 5th 2018 @ 7:58am | ! Report

        That’s a good point Daveski, while the Tahs scrum has looked awful at times it has stood firm at crucial times. And it can be expected to improve from next week.

        While they have been scrappy and disjointed fans must surely be happy with the application being shown, and how they have got points from games that last year would have been losses.

    • March 5th 2018 @ 7:51am
      Drongo said | March 5th 2018 @ 7:51am | ! Report

      Yeah, true about coaches. Their affect is often exaggerated. Take Thorn for example ( just a random selection, no reason why I would pick on him) Already Spiro is saying the Reds no try win against an abysmal Brumbies is ‘a reflection of Thorn’s playing days’. If they had scored 8 tried and won by 50, would that have been?

      • Columnist

        March 5th 2018 @ 8:01am
        Geoff Parkes said | March 5th 2018 @ 8:01am | ! Report

        Yes Drongo. Qld Country played attractive (and successful) rugby under Thorn and there’s no reason to expect he will be a dour coach. The way the game is now doesn’t allow for that.

    • Roar Guru

      March 5th 2018 @ 7:57am
      Machooka said | March 5th 2018 @ 7:57am | ! Report

      Morning G… and glad to hear you survived the re-union thingy back in old NZ. Corsets are a butch eh!

      Yeah, hard to imagine that these coaches can’t coach. And likewise, the success of any organisation is usually the sum of it’s parts all working together for the greater good. May sound a little old-fashioned, a little anti-Quaded… but it’s most likely the truth.

      And speaking of which… you’re soooo right about Auckland’s traffic. No wonder they can’t get their team heading in the right direction 😉

      • Columnist

        March 5th 2018 @ 8:03am
        Geoff Parkes said | March 5th 2018 @ 8:03am | ! Report

        No corset Chook, just a lot of sucking in. I actually secretly admire the guys who didn’t try to pretend and just let it hang, that shows far greater strength of character!

        • Roar Guru

          March 5th 2018 @ 9:28am
          Atawhai Drive said | March 5th 2018 @ 9:28am | ! Report

          Didn’t know you had a Taumarunui background, Geoff.

          Just 5000 people there, but as far as I know Taumarunui is one of the only NZ towns to have a song written about it _ who can forget Peter Cape’s ‘Taumarunui On The Main Trunk Line’?

          • Columnist

            March 5th 2018 @ 10:07am
            Geoff Parkes said | March 5th 2018 @ 10:07am | ! Report

            Quite a few less that 5,000 these days AD. The school roll was over 900 in my time, now well under 400. But it’s a good community and the place was certainly alive over the weekend.

            And yes that’s a well known song – although the Railways are also now a pale shadow of what they used to be.

          • Roar Guru

            March 5th 2018 @ 11:30am
            John R said | March 5th 2018 @ 11:30am | ! Report

            What about Today Tomorrow Timaru by Deja Voodoo

          • March 5th 2018 @ 1:03pm
            Jerry said | March 5th 2018 @ 1:03pm | ! Report

            I wish I was in Wellington – The Mutton Birds (who were from Auckland)
            Auckland City Song – The Eversons (who were from Wellington).

          • Roar Guru

            March 5th 2018 @ 1:57pm
            John R said | March 5th 2018 @ 1:57pm | ! Report

            oooh nice one Jerry.

            Fast Times in Tahoe – Elemeno P.
            Auckland is Burning – Die! Die! Die!

            • Roar Guru

              March 5th 2018 @ 3:46pm
              Wal said | March 5th 2018 @ 3:46pm | ! Report

              Since we’re a Rugby site, Theme From The Crusader by Scribe.
              I come from Christchurch the place of my birth, my home in this earth
              The best part being
              Its the Crusader, tight like Nathan and Aaron Mauger
              Do it first, talk later
              I’m running things like I’m Robbie Deans, I got a champion team
              And you can hate it if you want but I’m living my dream
              I’m on the road to the Holy Grail and I will never fail
              I get props, I keep ’em locked like Norman Maxwell
              You know I rap well thats for certain
              Because I’m on point like Andrew Mehrtens
              So for you fake MC’s its curtains

              • Roar Guru

                March 5th 2018 @ 3:55pm
                The Neutral View From Sweden said | March 5th 2018 @ 3:55pm | ! Report

                Strong poetry.
                If Bob Dylan could get the Nobel Prize in literature for his lyrics, why not Scribe also?

              • Roar Guru

                March 5th 2018 @ 3:56pm
                John R said | March 5th 2018 @ 3:56pm | ! Report

                True, his first album was called the Crusader too wasn’t it?

                South Canterburyyyyyyyyyyy

              • Roar Guru

                March 5th 2018 @ 4:03pm
                Wal said | March 5th 2018 @ 4:03pm | ! Report

                Hmm Scribe may have lost his Nobel eligibility with the recent drugs and weapons charges….

              • Roar Guru

                March 5th 2018 @ 4:26pm
                The Neutral View From Sweden said | March 5th 2018 @ 4:26pm | ! Report

                Oh no mate, possession of drugs and arms does not in any way disqualify one for the Nobel Price. In many ways, it actually increases one’s chances to get it – keeping it real so to speak.

    • Roar Guru

      March 5th 2018 @ 8:12am
      Diggercane said | March 5th 2018 @ 8:12am | ! Report

      Thank you Geoff.

      Poor old Coaches, cop it when losing, seemingly forgotten when winning. Certainly Cooper and Thorn should be afforded some wriggle room, to at least get their feet under the desk so to speak but you have to expect Gibson is under the pump, third season in, should be reasonable to start to see some positive change in results?

      • Columnist

        March 5th 2018 @ 8:32am
        Geoff Parkes said | March 5th 2018 @ 8:32am | ! Report

        Hi Digger

        Yes no question that Gibson has to produce this year. Finals at a minimum.

        He must be equal parts happy and fearful that they’ve got points on the board but haven’t played well yet.

        • Roar Guru

          March 5th 2018 @ 10:16am
          Diggercane said | March 5th 2018 @ 10:16am | ! Report

          Indeed, though you can only be happy with positive results to date despite not playing well yet. Looks a good opportunity to have a go at the Jags right now as well.

    • March 5th 2018 @ 8:14am
      KiwiHaydn said | March 5th 2018 @ 8:14am | ! Report

      Interested to hear your thoughts on the Blues Geoff? What is there problem? Surely it can’t be as simple as the coach (there have been multiple) or the players (there have been plenty of those too). They always seem to look good on paper, but don’t perform on the field.

      I had my doubts about them before the season, with some pundits putting them as high as third in the NZ Conference, even though they were lacking a 10 and had lost Luatua and Faumuina from last season. It seems that little has changed for them…

      • Columnist

        March 5th 2018 @ 8:38am
        Geoff Parkes said | March 5th 2018 @ 8:38am | ! Report

        The NZ franchises are incredibly tough KH. The other franchises have well founded success cultures.
        The Blues are improving but relative to the NZ competition they have little to show for it. I think Luatua was a big loss this season – but I also think they’ll win their share of matches.

    • Roar Guru

      March 5th 2018 @ 8:27am
      rebel said | March 5th 2018 @ 8:27am | ! Report

      Good well balance article again Geoff, probaly won’t sit too well with the less rational amongst us.

      Also anti-Quaded has to be the word of the week.

      • Columnist

        March 5th 2018 @ 8:40am
        Geoff Parkes said | March 5th 2018 @ 8:40am | ! Report

        Cheers Rebel. I like that we all get emotional about the game and about coaches. But yes, some of the extremes are probably too extreme?

      • Roar Rookie

        March 5th 2018 @ 9:33am
        Comrade Bear said | March 5th 2018 @ 9:33am | ! Report

        Yep – nice!

    , , , ,