Departing Chiefs coach shares a moment with Anton Lienert-Brown ahead of final match: 'F***, I'm already losing it'
It’s not often that coaches and players share a quick cuddle during a chat with media.
With Chiefs forwards coach Neil Barnes heading off to coach Taranaki after the completion of Super Rugby Trans-Tasman, however, Sunday night’s fixture with the Waratahs will be his final jaunt with the Hamilton-based side – and both he and senior Chiefs midfielder Anton Lienert-Brown were understandably emotional acknowledging that their time together was quickly coming to an end.
“Obviously, he’s a quality coach but best of all, he’s a good bugger on and off the field,” Lienert-Brown said of his departing coach. “We’ve had some really good challenging conversations throughout our time, we’ve had arguments – which are good ones – and we’ve also had a lot of good times together too.
“He’s going to be sorely missed, he’s pretty much dad to the whole forward pack – especially with those Taranaki boys. They’re going to be without their old man. It’s going to be tough seeing old mate go but he’ll be around no doubt.
“You’ve been bloody good mate,” he said, addressing Barnes, “and really appreciate it.”
Barnes joined the Chiefs coaching set-up in 2016 under Dave Rennie. In the years since, Barnes has also worked under Colin Cooper, Warren Gatland and Clayton McMillan and will leave knowing he’s made a huge impact on the players and wider team alike.
There’s a healthy contingent of Taranaki players involved in the Chiefs set-up who Barnes will continue to mentor during the NPC. The likes of Bradley Slater, Reuben O’Neill, Josh Lord, Tupou Vaa’i, Mitch Brown, Lachlan Boshier, Kaylum Boshier, Pita Gus Sowakula, Tom Florence and Sean Wainui will all get to spend plenty more time with the old head.
While the Chiefs struggled throughout 2020, a slew of talented young players were blooded at a time when experience was thin on the ground and Barnes is confident that the future is bright for the franchise.
“If there’s one thing I’m proud of, it’s the group that I’m leaving behind up front,” he said.
“It’s been a tough time, the last couple of years, because we’ve lost our experience and that was unintentional. We’ve had to blood 19 and 20-year-olds. Last year was a big learning process for them but right at the moment, they’ve friggin transformed into Super players now. I think next year they’re at that level where they’re experienced campaigners, chuck Brodie Retallick amongst them, and I’d say look out to the opposition.”
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While Barnes won’t be on hand to enjoy the benefits of their development as a coach, he’ll still take plenty of satisfaction in seeing how those players perform in the coming seasons.
“I’ll still enjoy it. There’s a lot of depth there and you look at them all, they’re going to be 21, 22 with a fella that’s nudging 30 to lead them and I’m sure he’ll be at his best to stay in front of them but he’ll have competition so it’s a good position to be in for the club. It’s something that, as I say, I’ll look back on with a little bit of pride and watch them go about their work.”
In Barnes’ six years with the Chiefs, the side made five Super Rugby finals – including this year’s Aotearoa final with the Crusaders. While the Chiefs aren’t on track to play in the ultimate game of the Trans-Tasman competition, the results have never been the key driver of Barnes’ enjoyment with the team.
“[It’s the] people, first and foremost. The culture. I was really fortunate, I suppose, to coach with Rens to start with, but right through the whole six years it’s been pretty special. F***, I’m already losing it.”
It was a good thing that Lienert-Brown was on hand to give his coach a few pats on the back.
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