As soon as I made the decision to stay with the Chiefs, I knew it was the right one. The phone call from Stuart Lancaster was a bolt from the blue and I was hugely impressed when I met the new England coach. But after a great deal of thought I decided I wanted to stay in New Zealand with my family and help make the Chiefs a club that Counties-Manukau, Waikato, Thames Valley, King Country & BOP could be proud of.
Back in 2008 Roy Keane came and met the All Blacks. He spoke of the time when he left Manchester United. Keane was irritated with Sir Alex Ferguson, he wanted a better deal, and so he took the millions that Celtic were offering. But the moment he pulled the Celtic jersey over his head, Keane knew he had made the wrong decision. It’s a story that came back to me when I was agonising over the future.
Turning down the England offer was nothing to do with money. We had deliberately not talked finances. I wanted the decision to be an entirely philosophical one. I wanted it to be free of monetary influences. We hadn’t even talked about the specifics of my role. It was about being in the right place at the right time. And after much thought, that turned out to be in New Zealand with the Chiefs.
The decision is no reflection on Stuart Lancaster at all. It was a surprise when he rang. I had talked with Nick Mallett about forming a team, but when that didn’t happen, I switched off. I wasn’t expecting Stuart’s call at all, but it was handy to meet, because he was doing a South African recce ahead of the England tour.
I found him level-headed, humble and with a real grasp of the challenges. He knows that one of his biggest challenges will be alignment with the Premiership coaches. That may sound impossible, but it can be done. Clive Woodward managed it when I was coaching at Northampton.
Woodward gave me the motivation to fit in with his England programme. The work he did enhanced what we were trying to achieve and we also provided the environment for the England players to thrive in. We allowed him access and in return Clive made sure the players weren’t flogged and came back to us in good condition on the Tuesday.
I think that Lancaster has the character to pull off the same magic trick. His values and humility stood out straight away. There are 12 clubs and he understands that he needs to get them on his side. We discussed his vision for England.
I was tempted by his approach or I would not have had to think so long about it. But I decided I wanted to stay with the Chiefs and so I will now be discussing a longer term arrangement with the NZRU than the current two years. I want to be part of creating something world class.
It is not by accident that I talked earlier about making the Chiefs a club that Counties-Manukau, Waikato, Thames Valley, King Country & BOP can be proud of. People don’t connect with franchises. They want to be part of their local club. We had that with the Crusaders in the late nineties. There was a huge engagement with the public and we would regularly sell out the stadium.
At the Chiefs we need to connect emotionally with the people of Counties-Manukau, Waikato, Thames Valley, King Country & BOP. Maybe part of that will be looking at kick-off times. I think it is something SANZAR needs to investigate. When we played the Sharks in Durban the match kicked off at 5pm. That left time to talk to Bismarck du Plessis afterwards, to see people in the car parks with their barbecues. Then the fans can have a drink and dinner afterwards. There is time to talk rugby and not just go home to bed.
It would be good to go in that direction with the Chiefs. We want to be the best at every level. We want the best board, the best advertising, the best medical people, the best staff, the best coaches, the best players and we want to win the best club competition in the world. It’s like creating a cult. I am passionate about this becoming a world class group.
We don’t fool ourselves that it will be easy. Pre-season I was showing our boys tapes of the Blues. They were the toughest and the best team at that point. They had the fastest line speed in defence. They had the best grasp of the breakdown laws. We then lost our first game and the fans were thinking: “Here we go again, same old Chiefs.”
Now the Blues are down and the Chiefs are up. Things can happen fast in rugby. Players will come and go. Sona Taumalolo is leaving at the end of the season. But it’s not the end when they leave and it’s not the start when they come. People forget Sona hardly played a game last season. His success now is part of the Chiefs success. Who is to say that Toby Smith won’t be the new Sona Taumalolo?
There is a core of players that any club is built on. At the Chiefs we have guys like Liam Messam, Richard Kahui, Tanerau Latimer and Brendon Leonard. We are all excited about what we are trying to do. I feel good about going to work every morning. 22,000 fans turned up to watch last week and they kept the players going in the second half. England was mighty tempting, but right now home feels like the best place in the world.