Our undercover man inside the game
10 months ago
The marathon Super Rugby season is finally drawing to a close. It seems a long time since the Crusaders scraped home against the Blues in the first match of the competition at Eden Park in February. The Chiefs and Sharks both lost that first weekend, though are popular and worthy finalists, as they have consistently played enterprising rugby throughout the season.
There has been controversy over TMO decisions, and surely SANZAR must do something to reduce the number of dubious decisions made by the men upstairs. Suggestions that TMO’s should be trained specialists make sense, as too many games this season were decided by questionable calls.
The four week break from the competition in June for Test rugby was a new departure for Super rugby, and not a bad thing. It might have been better if the break was mid-season rather than close to the end. Such a hiatus is normal in the Heineken Cup with the competition held over six months with breaks for Christmas, the Six Nations and three weeks between quarter–finals and semi’s and a further three weeks break until the final. .
There have been endless debates about the fairness of the Reds earning a home play-off despite finishing sixth at the end of the round robin stage of the competition. The competition is driven by the revenue earned from TV and there is a commercial logic to play-off games being hosted by each conference winner. The Reds were poor this season however and were found out by the Sharks on their home patch in the play-offs – it seemed like a fair outcome.
The Brumbies surprised many and were unlucky not to make the play-offs, while the Reds scraped in despite being a pale shadow of the team of last year. Meanwhile the Waratahs, Rebels and Force finished the season 11th, 13th and 14th respectively. The weakness of the Australian Super teams this season is a cause for concern. Rugby competes with ARL and NRL for players, whereas union is the national sport of both New Zealand and SA. Since the inception of the competition, NZ teams have won ten Super titles, with SA and Australia winning three each.
The season ends with four of the bottom five Franchises having parted company with their head coach. While John Mitchell has been suspended indefinitely, it is hard to imagine him being reinstated as coach of the Lions. Michael Foley has left the Waratahs and is expected to take over at the Force. Richard Graham is en route from Perth to Brisbane where he will be heir apparent to Ewen McKenzie, who is widely tipped to become the next Wallaby coach. Finally, Pat Lam was an inevitable casualty after the Blues disappointing season.
Credit is due to the Hurricanes and the Brumbies, who surprised many with their strong performances this season. Both teams have worked hard on and off the field to re-engage their supporters, and have restored their reputations by hard graft and ambition. In both cases, they appear to have added the secret sauce that successful teams need – a winning culture. Graham Henry talks ad nauseum about the culture within the world cup winning squad, but this can be what defines a successful team. England had it in 2003 and the Springboks had it in 2007.
Mark Hammett spent 2011 redefining the Hurricanes culture, defending the values he stands for and resisting opposition he encountered within the team. He started 2012 with a group of players, who were united by their belief in the values defined by the coach. They also were committed to the shift in work ethic and attitude which Hammett demanded of them. With this change in culture came results which would have been unachievable with the dysfunctional group of 2011. Jake White and Mark Hammett have taken the Brumbies and Hurricanes on a cultural journey which has produced great results and augurs well for the future of both franchises.
Coaches should have a clear vision for their team and how they aim to achieve it. Players of all ages should buy into the common goals and values established by the coach. Commitment should be given by all to the attitude, belief and effort required to achieve the goals. A strong culture produces a winning team, whereas a winning team does not always produce a strong culture.
The Chiefs and Sharks are great role models when it comes to a positive attitude and a respectful and committed team playing winning rugby. This was epitomised by the sense of unity and team spirit displayed by the Chiefs in the semi-final against the Crusaders. Similarly, the Sharks have shown their strength of character by winning successive play-off games away from home and face further long haul travel before playing the Chiefs in the final. A fascinating game awaits on Saturday between two teams who have earned their place in the final by commitment, attitude, self belief and the strongest of brotherhoods.