In the space of a month, Clayton McMillan has taken the Chiefs from an 11-match losing streak to within sniffing distance of a spot in the Super Rugby Aotearoa final.
In 2020, the Chiefs failed to record a win in the same competition, while they also started off this year with two losses and suffered a defeat at the hands of the Hurricanes in the final match of last year’s pre-COVID Super Rugby season.
Fittingly, it was against the Hurricanes that they broke their duck, recovering from a 19-point deficit to record a 35-29 win in Round 4 of this year’s competition. They’re now flying high, fresh off a win over the table-topping Crusaders and sitting on a four-game winning streak.
McMillan has taken over as interim head coach with Warren Gatland predisposed with this year’s British and Irish Lions tour, and many have suggested that the former Wales coach may not be welcomed back into the Chiefs region, given the poor results the side suffered throughout last year.
That would be an unproductive way of thinking, former All Black James Parsons has suggested on the Aotearoa Rugby Pod.
While he may no longer be in New Zealand, nobody outside the team knows whether Gatland is still having an influence on the side and while the wins are stacking up this season, they weren’t exactly well off the pace last year either.
“I don’t think it’s Warren Gatland and Clayton McMillan last year and then it’s all different this year,” said Parsons. “I still think they’re a team and they would have come up with a plan together and they’re a united force. I don’t see it as two separate entities, I still think they’re together and that will continue on next year once they’re back.
“How do we not know that they’re not connecting? How do we know that Warren’s not involved? We don’t know, we’re not in there. He could be playing a big role, we’ve just got no clue. He might not be playing any role, he could be having Zoom meetings with players, leadership groups, he could be doing all sorts that we don’t know.
“We’d only know if they told us, but there’s no way they’re going to tell us. We’re guessing. And I don’t think it’s a problem they mind us discussing, because we’re discussing it because they’re going so well.
“What I would say is, speaking to Sam Cane, he said he felt like last year they were that close on so many of these results, there wasn’t a lot in it. Whereas this year, the tide’s turned on a few fifty-fifty calls that’s sort of changed their luck a little bit. And they’ve grown confidence. Once that luck turned in that Hurricanes game, the belief starts and that’s how it’s sort of changed.
“I don’t think there’s a hell of a lot, structurally, but so much of it is mental and that belief and that energy that comes from it and they’ve just stuck to their guns a little bit.”
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) April 20, 2021
Bryn Hall, a member of the defeated Crusaders side from Saturday evening, also suggested that the Chiefs had taken some time to find their feet under the new Gatland reign but that were now coming good, a year down the track.
“I think it was always going to happen, I think we talked about it earlier in the year, around we thought they were doing some really good things even though they hadn’t gotten the results, they were playing some really good footy and it only one game, really, for them to get their mojo back,” Hall said. “They’re adapting. Last year, with Warren Gatland, they were in that middle stage of having a new coach and not having an identity and trying to figure out what Chiefs rugby looks like with a new coach.
“They just seem like they’ve got their tactics right this year. They’ve won four games in a row … Their kicking options from Damo have been great. The different types of kicks have been putting teams under pressure. They’ve had different phase play shapes which have been successful in previous weeks.
“I think they’re just marrying up really well and … they’re a proud team and it wasn’t going to be long, all they needed was a bit of luck.”
As Hall alluded to, even in their opening match of the season, when they built a 20-6 lead but eventually succumbed 39-23 to the Highlanders, there were signs that 2021 could be a promising season for the Waikato side.
If it weren’t for the magic of superstar left wing Jona Nareki, who scored or set up four of the Highlanders tries, the game could have ended very differently.
“I still believe that first game of the year, even when they lost, the quick 22s, the quick tap nature, the clean-outs, the brutal force game that we saw and I said ‘Look I don’t want to compare them to 2012, 2013’ but there were reflections of that,” Parsons said. “Now that they’re getting their set-piece sorted, there’s very much that flavour to it.
“I think we saw that again the other night and yep, Brad Weber’s said they’d like to win it by more and not leave it to the last minute, but they’re winning games, they know how to win games because they’re fighters and that’s what they’ve built themselves around.”
Under Davie Rennie's first two years in charge, the Chiefs played 20 matches that were decided by seven points or fewer, winning 15. Contrast that with 2020, when the Chiefs lost all six of their close encounters. #SuperRugbyAotearoa #CHIvCRUhttps://t.co/Ma6dVWbJ7H
— The XV Rugby (@TheXV) April 19, 2021
Despite not wanting to throw Gatland to the wolves, Parsons acknowledged that new man McMillan does need some praise for the success the Chiefs have had in 2021 – especially after they started the year with two losses, which could have set the team down a dangerous path.
“Clayton does need to have a big pat on the back because, under pressure [in] those first two games, everyone was like ‘Oh he’s been thrown a dud, he’s been thrown a hospital pass’. And at no one point did he blink. He just stayed calm.
“Even when they’ve started going well, yeah he’s shown some emotion when they’ve won a close game, as you should, but he still stays calm and he’s onto the next job the next week and I think that’s why they want to play for him and there’s a good solid foundation there between leaders and coaches.”
The Chiefs’ sit one point clear of the Blues on the Super Rugby Aotearoa ladder with the two sides set to play each other in two weeks’ time. It’s highly likely that the winner of that match will play in the Crusaders in the grand final, but a win against the Hurricanes this Friday could make things a lot easier for the Chiefs.
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