At some point the Chiefs' players have to put up or shut up with their third coach in three successive years
It’ll all be Clayton McMillan’s fault before too long.
The blame game’s become a staple of Chiefs rugby. Remember Colin Cooper? He couldn’t coach, apparently, with the players and support staff having to take over, before Cooper was relieved of his duties a year early.
How about Warren Gatland? He of decades of success with Connacht, Wasps, Ireland, Wales, Waikato and the British and Irish Lions, but a dismal 0-8 record with the Chiefs in Super Rugby Aotearoa.
“Warrenball” was not a success in 2020 and a few fans and talking heads wondered aloud about whether Gatland and his supposedly outdated methods should be shown the door too.
Now McMillian – one game into his tenure as the stand-in/replacement for Gatland – has watched a Chiefs team give up on his watch.
You can waffle on about confidence and momentum. You can condemn coaches for not developing the right culture or cultivating a coherent and effective gameplan, but at some point there’s one group who should take sole responsibility for the results.
Friday’s 39-23 loss to the Highlanders in Hamilton was unforgivable. The Highlanders lost two blokes to the sin bin, for crying out loud, and still won at a canter.
And all the while you couldn’t help thinking of a recent quote from Crusaders coach Scott Robertson.
Asked about playing the Highlanders in week one of the Super Rugby season, Robertson said he was wary for one big reason.
Not the Highlanders’ indoor stadium, nor the quality of their squad. No, Robertson said the Highlanders would be a challenge because they “play for’’ coach Tony Brown.
Who would you say the Chiefs are playing for right now? Themselves? Each other? It’s obviously not been their head coaches.
Dave Rennie is a hard act to follow. In all fairness, few – if any – elite coaches on the circuit would compare that favourably with Rennie.
He gave the Chiefs an identity on and off the park. Staunchly loyal to the players, Rennie was happy to have criticism heaped upon him, so long as his boys were spared.
The Chiefs pushed limits at the breakdown and they niggled and they sledged, but they also won. They were a unit who unequivocally played for each other and their head coach.
The years since Rennie haven’t been great, though. Cooper’s winning percentage was a tick under 53, while poor old Gatland couldn’t win a thing once Super Rugby went all kiwi.
Friday’s defeat didn’t inspire great optimism that the players are any more enthused this season, with their reward for capitulating to the Highlanders now being a trip to Christchurch to meet the Crusaders.
On the evidence so far, only the Hurricanes might offer the Chiefs a winning opportunity in 2021.
There’s a group who can change all that, though. Who can stop claiming their coaches are beneath them and just get on and win some footy games.
Who can take better options and fall off less tackles and stop making middle-of-the-road types such as Jona Nareki look absolutely world class.
Let’s be absolutely fair about this. If the Chiefs go three or four games without a win this season, will we start to see and hear stories that McMillan’s not up to it? That success with Bay of Plenty and the Maori All Blacks does not prepare a coach for the week-in, week-out rigours of Super Rugby.
If it can happen to men of real stature, such as Cooper and Gatland, then it sure as eggs can happen to a fledgling Super coach like McMillan as well.
At some point the Chiefs’ players have to put up or shut up. They have to accept that, much as they’d maybe like to blame a coach, these defeats are actually all on them.
Only then will they start to win again.
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