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New Zealand's teams are getting worse and a good deal of that is down to coaching

By Hamish Bidwell
(Photos by Getty Images)

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A mate of mine played for the Chris Boyd-coached Wellington Bs in 2001.

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Boyd, who’d come to the job after a successful stint looking after the Tawa club team, presented each squad member with a detailed playbook.

The new coach was a bit of a thinker on the game and wanted the players, some of whom went on to become All Blacks, Samoan internationals and Super Rugby stars, to start thinking too.

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Are Australian teams catching up with New Zealand? | The Breakdown
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Are Australian teams catching up with New Zealand? | The Breakdown

Some of the plays worked, some didn’t, but that’s not the point.

No, what’s relevant is that it was 2015 before Boyd ascended to the Super Rugby stage himself.

By then he’d helped coach Natal, run a successful sporting goods franchise, mentored aspiring national and provincial coaches and crafted and honed his own philosophies.

Boyd knew how to manage players, knew the game he wanted the Hurricanes to play, knew what moves and styles worked, knew how to deal with the media and, just as importantly, knew exactly who he was as a man and a coach.

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He’d served a long and worthwhile apprenticeship and wasn’t Robinson Crusoe in that regard either.

Peers, such as Dave Rennie at the Chiefs, had spent just as long in the coaching game, working with the Wellington Colts, Bs and Lions sides, Manawatu.

These men came to their Super Rugby roles as almost the finished article. Men who’d made their mistakes away from the spotlight and were ready for the rigours of high-performance rugby.

A bit’s been made of the last couple of rounds of Super Rugby Pacific and what they tell us about the strengths and weaknesses of New Zealand and Australian rugby.

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Much of that’s been talk for talking’s sake. This is a competition of increasingly little import or interest and comparing the merits of the two nations is what you do when there’s literally nothing else to talk about.

Wake me up after the Bledisloe Cup tests have been played. Until then, little that’s said now is particularly relevant.

Are Australia’s teams improving? Who knows and who cares?

But I can tell you that I reckon New Zealand’s are getting worse and a good deal of that is down to coaching.

I’ve written before about the player drain and that whole tier of New Zealand talent that’s been lost. Those guys, in their mid-20s who were regular Super Rugby starters and maybe even All Blacks from time to time, but now ply their trade elsewhere.

In their place we have boys, who would be better served in franchise development teams or provincial footy, alongside All Blacks who are playing because their contracts demand it.

And that might be workable, if so many of the coaches weren’t doing on-the-job training too.

New Zealand Rugby (NZR) have created a closed shop. If you’re not already on the All Blacks’ staff then, barring catastrophic World Cup failure, you’ll never be head coach.

Even the team’s dismal performance at the 2019 tournament wasn’t enough to dissuade NZR from succession.

If you’re a successful and seasoned coach in their 50s or 60s, you’re wasting your time in New Zealand.

And so we have Leon MacDonald of the Blues, mentioned in All Blacks dispatches. Should it all go wrong in 2023, would MacDonald head or form part of the next national coaching group?

Not so long ago, MacDonald would be a 1st XV or club coach. He’d maybe be getting invited to do some specialist coaching for a provincial team and generally learning his trade.

Once the path to elite coaching was a gradual one. Now it feels as players simply wander down the corridor from the dressing room and into a coaching office.

I’m told that rugby is so complex now that Boyd and Rennie couldn’t ascend to the top. That only guys already within the system can understand the game and the apparatus around it.

Retiring players have that institutional knowledge and are, therefore, better qualified to assume assistant and head-coaching roles.

Maybe.

But I don’t believe that’s enhancing the product. I don’t believe the skill development, execution and decision making of players is getting any better.

Guys, at least to my untrained eye, rarely appear to improve at all. They might be bigger and stronger, but they’re no better at rugby than when they arrived.

Time and again, it’s individual brilliance that wins New Zealand teams games.

I’ve heard people wondering aloud about where our ascendency has gone. I’ve seen them worrying that we might only be the third or fourth-best nation around.

Why aren’t we as good as we used to be?

The answer to that question, at all levels of our game, is coaching.

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