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The players set to profit from Wales' new gameplan

With the Pivac era now a distant memory, Warren Gatland has a rich seam of talent to select from in the Six Nations

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Will Gatland's homecoming with the Chiefs be remembered fondly, if at all?

By Tom Vinicombe
Warren Gatland. (Original photo by Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)

Warren Gatland won’t go down as the worst Super Rugby coach in New Zealand history but statistically speaking, he’s not far off.


That honour falls to the man who helmed the Crusaders in the inaugural season of the competition way back in 1996. In a year where they finished bottom of the table, Stewart’s men banked just two wins from 11 matches and he was promptly replaced the following season with coaching mastermind Wayne Smith. In 1997, Smith bumped the Crusaders up to sixth on the table and then grabbed back-to-back titles in his final two years in charge.

Further south, Glenn Ross managed a 27 per cent win-rate with the Highlanders in his only season in charge, in the same year that Smith took over at the Crusaders but it was Glenn Moore’s 26 per cent record between 2004 and 2007 that took the Highlanders to their lowest point.

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The only other coaches who have presided over sub-30 per cent records spent their years with the Chiefs, with Kevin Greene finishing with a 27 per cent success rate from 2002 to 2003.

Enter Gatland in 2020.

Coming off a semi-final finish with Wales at the prior year’s Rugby World Cup and over a decade of successful international experience, there were hopes in the Waikato that Gatland could pick up where Dave Rennie had left off when he departed at the end of 2017 and rebuild following a few less than successful campaigns with Colin Cooper in charge.

New Zealand Rugby Head of Professional Rugby Chris Lendrum welcomed Gatland’s appointment.


“This is an outstanding appointment and a coup for the Chiefs, for Super Rugby and for the game in New Zealand generally,” said NZR head of professional rugby, Chris Lendrum. “We are excited to have a coach of Gats’ experience and international standing coming back into our environment.”

Chiefs CEO Michael Collins was also optimistic. “Warren is a world-class coach who boasts a proven track record,” he said. “With a sound rugby background and his desire to return home to New Zealand and be involved in Super Rugby naturally made him a top choice for the role.”

To Gatland’s credit, the Chiefs started the season as arguably the most impressive of the NZ franchises, banking four wins from six matches and scoring well-deserved wins over local rivals the Blues and Chiefs.



Then Covid struck.

Following a three-month break, things got back underway in the form of Super Rugby Aotearoa, and things quickly went downhill for the Chiefs. Eights fixtures ended in eight defeats for the Hamilton-based side and although Gatland’s men came within an inch of breaking the losing streak on a number of occasions (finishing within seven points of their opposition on no less than five occasions), they couldn’t stop the rot.

Of course, Gatland wouldn’t be on hand to turn things around the following season thanks to his unique contract situation with the Chiefs and New Zealand Rugby.

When Gatland first signed to return to NZ, the agreement was that he could take a sabbatical of sorts in 2021 in order to take charge of the British and Irish Lions in South Africa.

With Gatland off-shore, Clayton McMillan stepped in as interim coach and while he didn’t get off to the best start, with the Chiefs dropping their opening two matches of the season, they grabbed a shock come-from-behind victory over the Hurricanes in Round 4 – and then went on to bag a further four wins on the trot to secure a place in that year’s Super Rugby Aotearoa final.

The Chiefs finished the campaign with nine wins from 14 matches and when Gatland returned to the Waikato the following season, the franchise had a bit of a problem on their hands. Could you really reinstate Gatland in his post as a head coach when McMillan had proved so successful in his inaugural campaign?

In the end, the Chiefs settled for giving Gatland a newly conceived director of rugby role – with the specifics of the job never especially clear to anyone outside the organisation (and you suspect that many within Chiefs HQ might also have been at somewhat of a loss to explain the set-up). That’s no to say there weren’t merits to having Gatland on board, however, thanks to his ample experience at all levels of the game and his ties to the region, and the Chiefs players have widely praised Gatland’s contributions.

The point stands, however, that Gatland finished his tenure as head coach with a meagre 29 per cent win-record, and has now signed off from the club permanently, linking back up with Wales as a replacement for fellow Kiwi Wayne Pivac, who’s endured a challenging year at the helm.

How, then, will Gatland’s tenure with the Super Rugby franchise be remembered?

The nature of the initial contract, with Gatland spending a season away with the Lions, meant it was always going to be an interesting few years for Chiefs supporters. The fact remains that the former All Blacks hooker only really spent one season in the limelight and while his work behind the scenes may have reaped rewards – just take a look at how Samisoni Taukei’aho has flourished in the past few years – his time with the Chiefs will be judged on the results in 2020.

With the likes of Damian McKenzie, Sam Cane and Anton Lienert-Brown on the books, more was certainly expected from the side during their ill-fated Super Rugby Aotearoa campaign.

Kicking off the Chiefs’ worst-ever losing record (and also the worst for a New Zealand side) wasn’t a good look, although it should be noted that no teams of the past have ever had to play so many derby matches in a row and without a few easy-beats scattered amongst the fixtures, a poor run for one of the Kiwi franchises was always a distinct possibility.

With Gatland’s work fading into the background, most fans around NZ probably won’t even notice his absence – and his early exit from what was supposed to be a four-year deal won’t upset anyone.

But, ultimately, Gatland’s return to Hamilton and the Chiefs was supposed to be a spectacular homecoming and at the time was heralded as such. It never paved out that way, however, and with the odds on the Chiefs appointing a new director of rugby to replace Gatland slim at best, you do have to wonder what was the point of the whole affair.


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