The Chiefs were the small-town, poor relation of Kiwi Super Rugby teams.
We had made the play-offs just twice in the 16 years of the competition, lost more games than we won, had few All Blacks and received little media coverage.
We always felt inferior to and lost to the Crusaders, who boasted the most and biggest All Blacks, and eight titles. Yes, Ian Foster (what’s he up to now?) had developed an exciting attack, but we lacked substance.
Then at the end of the 2011 season Foster left to assist Steve Hansen and our three biggest stars – Mils Muliaina, Sitiveni Sivivatu and Stephen Donald – headed north. Lots of other players left too and 15 replacements had to be recruited by our new coach, Dave Rennie.
We had few big names. Even after we brought in those players we had only one first-choice first XV All Black from the previous year’s World Cup, Richard Kahui. And even he had a season-ending injury early on and went north later that year.
Then in Round 1 we not only lost at home to the Highlanders, we also lost our top two props for most of the season.
This article looks at how Rennie turned that around, immediately winning not one but two titles, being the only team to make the play-offs every year since, and consistently beating the big name Cantabs, especially in the big games.
Could he possibly do the same in his next job? Read the article and decide for yourself.
When he arrived, Dave Rennie had won three from three world under-20 crowns (three times better than much feted Crusaders coach Scott Robertson), but his most recent senior job was with the small Manawatu province, in the second division of the National Provincial Championship.
We didn’t exactly get excited by his appointment. So where on earth did all that success come from?
Perhaps crucially, Rennie had the most outrageous piece of good luck when the best assistant coach in the world quit the All Blacks to spend more time with his ageing dad in the Waikato. His experience and tactical acumen complemented Rennie’s leadership and they both greatly valued team culture and helped players become better people.
In the ’90s as head coach, Wayne Smith had transformed the Crusaders from the worst team in Super Rugby to the best. He also took charge of the All Blacks, before deciding that he was better off as an assistant and playing a massive part in two World Cup victories.
We don’t know how much of the Chiefs’ success was down to him, but we can be certain that Rennie learnt a lot from him.
The keys to success
The first strategic key to our success was an emphasis on whanau, which is Maori for extended family. On the wall at their training base everyone put up the people they were doing this for. This was what Rennie based our team culture on.
The man who most exemplified these values was our captain Liam Messam. A thoroughly decent human being, he was the heart of the team, so crucial in living and leading the culture. Never a top All Black, he was outstanding at this level, often making the big contribution at the big moment. What he lacked though was the chat with refs and his team and the tactical acumen to change direction mid game.
This brought us to the second key, shared leadership. The master stroke was to promote Taranaki lock and lineout caller Craig Clarke to co-captain alongside him, so strong in Messam’s weak areas. He was our glue, the brains to go with Messam’s heart and the young Brodie Retallick’s brawn, and we always seemed to lose when he was out injured.
Like Messam, he was also a real body-on-the-line type who captured big moments and Rennie could never understand why he was ignored by All Blacks selectors. I wonder whether there is a similar leader in Australia who could complement Michael Hooper?
The third key was to add direction, vision and punch to an already exciting attack. To replace Donald, Rennie brought in someone he had mentored with Manawatu and the Baby Blacks. Aaron Cruden was only third choice for the All Blacks in 2011 but he quickly became the best attacking flyhalf in the world. He always seemed to know where the space was and took the right option.
The punch came from our stellar recruit, who arrived thanks to the persuasive powers of Wayne Smith. Sonny Bill Williams was only a bit-part player in the World Cup, but had star quality and was a great big brother in the squad. He had an amazing combination with Cruden and gave us valuable go-forward.
Next we come to the quantum leap up front. Without compromising our back line attack, instead of being bullied by the likes of the Crusaders, we would become the bullies, intensely physical, full of hard work, pushing the laws, spoiling possession and niggling away.
Existing players like the co-captains above, warrior seven Tanerau Latimer and Tongan Test loosehead Sona Taumalolo, who scored nine tries in the 16-game season, loved the new style. Taumalolo earned his own fan chant: “he scores when he wants.”
To fill gaps in the squad, the coaches pored over the stats to recruit some no-name but hard-working forwards who were unwanted by anyone else. Taumalolo’s nephew, the overweight but immovable and ridiculously skilful tighthead Ben Tameifuna, plus veteran Samoan captain and hooker Mahonri Schwalger, not re-signed by the Highlanders, completed a dominant front row.
And then there was a certain big, awkward, bespectacled lock with a prodigious work rate who had to play for Hawkes Bay in 2011 after failing to make the Canterbury NPC team.
Apart from Retallick, not many of those forwards are that well renowned. But they formed one heck of a pack of mongrels.
After our first-up loss, we amazed everyone by winning our next nine. Our statement performance was in Round 3 with our obscure pack getting right in the faces of the Crusaders’ All Blacks, using all possible means to get the better of them and creating the biggest rivalry in Super Rugby.
It was two tries to one, including a a trademark Taumalolo drive. The sight of a Crusaders scrum featuring seven All Blacks getting pushed back onto their arses by a bunch of rejects had to be seen to be believed.
The big game of the season was the semi-final, again against the Crusaders. It was another fractious encounter, with another short-range Taumalolo try this time following a Williams break, and another big Messam moment in a big match, running of course off a Williams half break.
Then after an easy final against the jet-lagged Sharks, we had achieved the undreamable: we were Super Rugby champions!
Everyone thought that this would be an aberration, a one-off by a team that rode a wave and got lucky, especially when we lost key players like Kahui, Williams and Taumalolo at the end of the season.
But after a table-topping season, there we were again, a home semi-final against a very determined Crusaders team. Our attack had been amazing – we had the worst possession stats in the comp yet scored the most points, not because of poor forwards but because we defended so well and found it so easy to score.
In the big moment in the semi-final, when prolific X-factor wing Lelia “Flash” Masaga picked up a loose pass out wide, he had six defenders in front of him. Instead he raced left to where the ruck had been and crashed through four defenders to score.
Later, Cruden blindsided Ryan Crotty for a juggling intercept try, 20-9. But Israel Dagg scored from nothing with two outside swerves, Dan Carter kept kicking his goals and in the end it was immense goal-line defence and great pressure on a Carter field goal attempt that got us home 20-19.
The jet-lagged Brumbies played no rugby but ruled the first 60 minutes of the final to lead 22-12. We left a lot of our most dynamic players on the bench and were determined to run the Brumbies around, but got knocked over too often behind the gain line by the rush defence and George Smith kept on stealing penalties and the ball.
Vunga Lilo scored a try and kicked his goals while Cruden missed some easy ones. Yet we took off our other kicker Gareth Anscombe and replaced him with fast, injury-prone Southland fullback Robbie Robinson.
We didn’t call our bench the reserves, they were the spark plugs (an attitude since copied by many) and while Jake White preferred to trust his experienced starters, the likes of Robinson, Bundee Aki and Augustine Pulu all came on early and made momentum-shifting breaks.
Once again, though, it was Liam Messam, so fast in those days, who made the big play in the big match, racing off the back of a scrum to score. Then Aki made a break from one 22 to the other and from the ruck the ball was spun to Robinson, running a great line at pace. Cruden put his kicking boots on, converted the try and then a penalty, and the rejects had done it again!
So why didn’t we kick on from there? Of the 23-man squad that won that 2012 final, no less than 12 had played their last game for us by 2014 through retirement or emigration, while super coach Wayne Smith answered Steve Hansen’s call that same year. Injuries to Cruden every season left us without a real playmaker, too.
In addition, of the seven new players who played in the 2013 final, four of them had also left by 2014, including future Celtic stars Aki and Anscombe. Our players and coaches were in demand and unless they were All Blacks they could earn several times their money elsewhere. Not many of them pulled up trees though – the team was far greater than the sum of its parts and a testimony to its leaders.
The Kiwi production line kept on providing us with talent, but we always seemed to be rebuilding and until recently, we hadn’t found a coach like Smith or anyone with Williams’ skill set or Clarke’s leadership. The top clubs in Europe can keep a settled squad but that’s difficult for a southern hemisphere team that succeeds without many Test players.
It does give new talent a chance to come through for the All Blacks though, and the likes of Sam Cane, Damian McKenzie and Anton Lienert-Brown all got their chance when the likes of Tanerau Latimer, Anscombe and Aki went north.
We’ve not reached the final again since, but we are the only team to make the play-offs every year since 2012 – a far cry from those 16 years of mediocrity. And with the emergence of Cane as a great leader and homecoming of Warren Gatland, who is a great coach, glory might just return.
But whatever happens we will never forget the years when we shed our mediocrity and our small-town team ruled southern hemisphere rugby.
Dave Rennie and the coaches and players who made it happen are gone now, but we will always be grateful for the pride and success that they gave us.