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New Zealand's best coaches all have one unheralded skill in common

Although there have been a few hiccups in recent weeks, the Crusaders are still well ahead of the chasing pack.

A championship win would be Scott Robertson’s third in as many years. Only once before has a Super Rugby team done the three-peat: the Crusaders that played from 1998 to 2000. Wayne Smith was in charge for the first two years of that triple and Robbie Deans took over in the final year. Robertson will become the first man to win three titles in a row as coach if his charges can secure the championship in the coming months.

What makes the feat even more impressive is the fact that Robertson only took over as head coach in 2017. If Robertson does step away from the Crusaders at the end of the season to take up a role with the national team then he could have a perfect record as a Super Rugby coach – three championships from three attempts. It’s very unlikely we’d ever see such an accomplishment again.

It goes without saying that Robertson is a very astute coach from a technical point of view. There are many aspects to good coaching, but an exceptionally impressive understanding of the sport itself is obviously the primary skill required.

There are probably a very good number of coaches working in New Zealand that also have an in-depth understanding of the game – at Super Rugby, provincial, club and school levels.

What helps separate Robertson from his peers, however, is not his unquestionable tactical and strategic knowledge.

Robertson, like many other good coaches before him, is an expert people manager – especially when it comes to young men.

During his formative years as a coach, Robertson helped set up a number of youth initiatives at Sumner Rugby club in Christchurch. When Chris Boyd vacated his post as coach of the New Zealand Under 20 team at the end of 2013, Robertson stepped into the role. Robertson had already logged a number of years as both assistant and head coach at Canterbury by then and had been a part of six successive championships for the red and blacks.

In previous decades, players would make their provincial and national squads after spending a number of years cutting their teeth at club level. Before rugby went pro, players almost always had jobs outside of playing rugby, which meant that they had the chance to develop certain life skills that can only be learnt with time.

Now, we’re seeing younger and younger men progress to professional rugby and these players are as much in need of a mentor as they are in need of a coach.

20-year-old rugby players now have considerably more money than their peers, get to travel all around the world and, in many ways, are treated like celebrities. Who, in this situation, wouldn’t need a bit of advice now and again?

Back in 2013, ex-school teacher Dave Rennie took the Chiefs to their second Super Rugby title. Rennie never shied away from revealing how beneficial his former career had been to his successes as a coach.

“Teaching, coaching, it’s the same thing,” Rennie said, “The kids are just a bit bigger.”

Rennie, also one of New Zealand’s most successful recent coaches, coached the New Zealand Under 20s to three championships in a row. Prior to that, Rennie spent a number of years working at IRANZ, a New Zealand development centre for young rugby players.

Like Robertson, Rennie is an astute rugby man – but he also shares Robertson’s ability to build rapport with young players who may, at times, be in need of a guiding hand.

The other similarity that both coaches share is that neither was a top player in their earlier days. Robertson managed 23 appearances for the All Blacks – not a sizeable figure compared to some of his compatriots – whilst Rennie’s only international appearance was for a Cook Islands XV back in 1990.

In fact, most of New Zealand’s top coaches never set the world alight as players.

Chris Boyd coached the Hurricanes to their only Super Rugby title back in 2016. Boyd’s first professional assignment was as an assistant coach at Wellington in 2003. That job was secured not on Boyd’s almost non-existent performance as an elite player, but as recognition for the work he had done coaching club rugby for nine years as well as his time spent as the Wellington B coach. Boyd coached the NZ U20 side in 2013.

Graham Henry, who coached the All Blacks to a World Cup title in 2011, is probably the best example of a school teacher-cum-coach. Henry was never a prodigious player and after his playing career with Canterbury came to an end, Henry took up a role at Auckland Grammar School.

Henry coached Grammar’s First XV before moving to rivals Kelston Boys’s High School as a Deputy Headmaster. Again, Henry coached the school’s top team.

When Henry coached the Blues to a Super Rugby title way back in 1996, he had already notched up almost 20 years of school teaching and almost 25 years as a coach.

Current All Blacks coach Steve Hansen played 21 matches in the midfield for Canterbury but was never selected for national duty. The former horse handler took to coaching after his playing career came to an end and although Hansen didn’t have much experience as a head coach when he took over from Henry in 2012, Hansen now has a reputation as one of the best coaches in world rugby.

Hansen, unlike some of the other coaches, does not have a background in teaching, but he was a police officer prior to taking up coaching. No doubt the Otago-born coach spent a lot of time dealing with youth in that role and picked up skills which have made him the coach he is today.

The common denominator in many of New Zealand’s top coaches seems to be their ability to not just develop exceptional talents, but to nurture young minds – and those skills have typically been developed as either a teacher or an age-grade coach. Performance during playing days seems to have little impact on performance as a coach, which is why it’s so surprising to see so many experienced, fairly recent All Blacks taking the reins at Super Rugby franchises.

Aaron Mauger, Leon MacDonald and Tana Umaga were all still playing top flight rugby as recently as 10 years ago. Umaga, the oldest of the three, became head coach of the Blues at the age of 43.

While it’s not unheard of to have success as a coach at such a young age, it is certainly not the norm. Crusaders coaches Robertson, Smith and Robbie Deans are the obvious exceptions, winning titles at 42, 41 and 40 respectively. In contrast, Rennie was 49, Boyd was 58, Joseph was 45, Henry was 49 and Peter Sloane, who guided the Blues to their most recent title in 2003, was 54.

Players are taking the step up to professional leagues at a considerably younger age now than in the past, but is that any reason to expect that younger coaches should also become the norm? There’s a clear precedent that more experienced coaches with a background in mentoring young men will perform better as coaches. Only time will tell if the new crop of coaches can achieve similar results to their predecessors without that same background.

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New Zealand's best coaches all have one unheralded skill in common