Twelve months ago the 2017 provincial season had just come to a car crash of an end for Waikato.
The once mighty province managed just two wins throughout the Mitre 10 Cup competition – both coming in the first three weeks of the competition, which gifted them the undesirable record of having the longest losing streak for a Waikato team in the province’s almost 100-year history.
The 2-8 record for the season meant that Waikato finished bottom of the premiership ladder – relegating them to the Championship for 2018. This was to be Waikato’s first time in the second-tier of the competition since the current iteration of New Zealand’s NPC began in 2011.
Things weren’t quite as bad as some reports made them out to be. Much was made out of the fact that Waikato hadn’t ventured into the second division in 31-years, however, the Championship is a considerable step up in quality from the old second division. All the same, this was a big fall from grace for once of the country’s traditional heavyweights.
2018 has been a completely different story. Jono Gibbes has stepped in as the coach and in his first and only season with the team, he has helped them play some of their best rugby in a number of years. Now, the team is on the cusp of immediately being promoted back into the Premiership – but what has changed with Waikato this year that has allowed this dramatic turnaround in results?
Playmakers and goalkickers
Clever recruiting in some key roles has played a huge part in the turnaround in Waikato’s fortunes in 2018. Last season there was a noticeable lack of leadership in the key halfback and first five positions – partially due to the fairly regular rotation that seemed to occur, and partially due simply to the abilities of the players that were selected.
Everything has changed this season, with Jack Stratton and Fletcher Smith – recruited from Canterbury and Otago, respectively – guiding the Waikato team around the pitch in the majority of their matches. Stratton had to contest for the 9 jersey with returnee Kylem O’Donnell, whilst Smith spent the early part of the season at fullback with Matty Lansdown calling the shots from 10.
Notably, it was in their first few games, before the team was settled, that Waikato played their worst rugby of the season. Once Stratton cemented himself at halfback and Smith and Lansdown swapped jerseys, the Waikato engine finally started to purr. The reliable 9-10 guided Waikato throughout the rest of the season and there has been hardly a stutter a since.
It wasn’t just direction that was lacking in 2017, however. Dwayne Sweeney, Sam Christie, Lansdown, Sevu Reece and Pita Ahki were all handed the kicking tee at various times throughout the season – players who have never been known for their astute goal kicking – and the results were, unsurprisingly, quite disastrous. The final success rate for the season fell short of 60%.
Fletcher Smith’s accuracy has eradicated this problem altogether. Smith has successfully landed 49 kicks at goal this season – the most of any player in the competition and has been striking the ball with enough precision to notch up an 86% hit rate for the season. Instead of losing matches due to dire goalkicking, Waikato has come out on top in most of their matches in the goalkicking stakes. Of course, there’s a lot more to Smith than simply being a good goalkicker.
Reece more dangerous than ever
Sevu Reece has been Waikato’s biggest attacking threat for the last couple of years, but that hasn’t been enough for him to secure a Super Rugby contract, giving rise to him signing a contract with Connacht which was to commence at the end of the season.
With his future secured, Reece has really let loose this year and has scored a total of 12 tries (a competition best) – with one more opportunity to add to his tally coming up this weekend. The last time a player managed to notch up as many tries in one provincial season was in in 2009, when Zac Guildford amassed 13 for Hawke’s Bay.
It’s no coincidence that Waikato’s last loss of the season – against Otago two weeks ago – occurred when Reece was serving a one-match ban for an assault charge levelled against him. Reece has been in exceptional form this year, clocking up metres seemingly at will. Whilst his defence still leaves much to be desired, there’s no question that his attacking threat more than makes up for any deficiencies in his game – at least at the provincial level.
With Roger Randle, one of Waikato’s most prolific try scorers of all time, joining the coaching team for the 2018 season, Reece has no doubt has been receiving some well-placed feedback on the art of finishing. Reece’s aforementioned assault charge has meant the termination of his Connacht contract – but has he done enough this season to reap rewards at the next level?
Positive injection of youth
A number of young Waikato players should find themselves on the receiving end of Super Rugby contracts come recruitment time. Quinn Tupaea, in his first season, dominated the 13 jersey and has been arguably one of the best players in the competition. Bailyn Sullivan, traditionally a midfielder, has also earned some valuable game time this year on the wing on the back of a very successful U20 campaign. The two combined for an exception showing against Northland a number of weeks ago and will both be on the hunt for fulltime contracts for 2019’s iteration of Super Rugby.
Matty Lansdown is another player who has shown promise for a number of years – earning plenty of praise for the Waikato U19 team a few years ago – who came of age this year. With the slightly older Fletcher Smith pulling the strings from 10, Lansdown was able to focus on his personal game without the burden of bossing the rest of the team around the paddock. Looking ahead, he will likely focus on the fullback jersey in the years to come and would be a good pickup for any New Zealand franchise going forward.
Of course, there are also a number of old heads in the team in the forms of Dwayne Sweeney and Wallaby Toby Smith. It’s the combination of youth and experience that has served the team so well for the 2018 season.
Bringing back Jono Gibbes was a stroke of genius for the Waikato Rugby Union. Gibbes is a Waikato man through and through and will hopefully return to the shores of New Zealand in the near future to continue his development as a coach. Whilst it’s disappointing that he is leaving Waikato after only one season in charge, his work with the team should pave the way for a great future.
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