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RUGBYPASS+ Clayton McMillan's Chiefs eyeing bold Super Rugby future

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Clayton McMillan's Chiefs eyeing bold Super Rugby future

It should come as no major surprise that Clayton McMillan has retained his role as head coach of the Chiefs moving forward, having stepped into the position on an interim basis this year with Warren Gatland away coaching the British and Irish Lions.

When McMillan took over for the 2021 season, the Super Rugby franchise was sitting on their worst losing streak in history, having dropped nine games on the trot to round out a disappointing 2020.

The season had started so promisingly for the 2012 and 2013 champions, with prodigal son Gatland returning to his hometown and guiding the side to four wins from his first six games in charge as head coach.

Then the global pandemic struck.

After three months of uncertainty, a revamped Super Rugby Aotearoa competition kicked off – featuring just the five New Zealand sides – and the Chiefs, all of a sudden, couldn’t seem to buy a trick.

The Chiefs endured a tough 2020, suffering nine straight losses to round out the season. (Photo by Kerry Marshall/Getty Images)

Eight matches ended in eight defeats, with five decided by seven or fewer points and a slew of controversial decisions going against the team. It was a disheartening time to be a Chiefs supporter.

With Gatland linking up with the Lions, McMillan – who had guided Bay of Plenty to a provincial Championship title two years prior – was named as his temporary replacement.

The season got off to an inauspicious start, with the Chiefs dropping their opening two games to the Highlanders and Crusaders, and things weren’t looking good in their third hit-out either when they found themselves 26-7 down at halftime to the Hurricanes.

A miraculous second half, sparked by Damian McKenzie, saw the Chiefs score five converted tries to take out the match 35-29 and from there, the campaign roared into life.

Come the end of the season, McMillan’s men had notched up nine wins from 14 games, as well as contesting the Aotearoa final with the heavyweight Crusaders.

I think we all agree that we both bring different strengths to the table. He’s just got unbelievable rugby knowledge and IP – he’s the world’s most experienced coach.

McMillan on how he and Warren Gatland will bring the most to the Chiefs

It wasn’t perfect but it was a massive step in the right direction – and McMillan’s successful inaugural campaign forced a rethink at Chiefs headquarters.

Now, Gatland will step into a newly created director of rugby role while McMillan will retain his position as head coach. It’s a combination that will ensure the franchise gets the best out of both men.

Speaking exclusively to RugbyPass, McMillan acknowledged that there are huge synergies to be had by having both him and Gatland involved.

“I think we all agree that we both bring different strengths to the table,” McMillan said. “He’s just got unbelievable rugby knowledge and IP – he’s the world’s most experienced coach.

“What I bring, or what we’ve talked about, is a comfort in that cultural space, a pretty robust understanding of the New Zealand rugby union pathways and the players that are out there.

“Outside of the guys that are operating at Super Rugby level, Gats probably doesn’t have as deep an understanding of who’s actually out there. My knowledge in those spaces is pretty good and so, combined, you put all those things in the melting pot and it’s a pretty good combo. It’s just around us being aligned around how we can best utilise these other strengths for the betterment of the team.”

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Clayton McMillan earned his stripes coaching with Bay of Plenty. (Photo by Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)

That cultural knowledge that McMillan alluded to was key in the Chiefs’ turn-around this year.

While 2021 hadn’t necessarily been earmarked for greatness, given the side’s struggles throughout the previous campaign, it’s not difficult to see why first-year Super Rugby coach McMillan was able to turn an underperforming side into one of the hottest tickets of the season.

When McMillan formerly joined the set-up, he had one major goal: rebuilding the side’s identity.

“The benefit of going in the previous season was that not only did I see all the good stuff that they were doing, but I was able to identify a couple of areas where I thought that I could have an impact or bring some influence,” McMillan said. “I pushed those couple of areas really hard – and they were specifically around our identity and how we wanted to be perceived in the community, both on and off the rugby field, and what we needed to do day-to-day to hold ourselves accountable and bring that identity to life.

“That identity has been there for a long time, I just think with coaches and management and experienced players moving on over the years, it had never been lost it just had become a little bit eroded. It was always there, the narrative had just become a little bit confused. It was around taking all the good stuff that had been there for a long time and remodelling it to be ours, so we could own it and it wasn’t just repetition of something that had been done 10 years ago. The messages were the same, just done in a different way so that we actually had ownership of it.

I always get direction from people that know a hell of a lot more about these things than what I do but I feel quite comfortable delivering in that space and that’s why I identified that as an area where we could get some easy wins.

McMillan on reinvigorating ‘Chiefs Mana’

“It was almost like a rebirth, starting again and everybody jumping on the waka at the same time. It’s powerful stuff and the boys got into it and next season, we’ll try and get a little bit deeper and add a couple more layers so that it’s ever-evolving and hopefully we never get to a point where we feel like we have to have another rebirth, it just keeps getting stronger and stronger.”

McMillan has a strong grounding in te ao Maori and that, coupled with his experiences with the Maori All Blacks, has made him the perfect person to help reinvigorate a culture within the Chiefs that stood them in good stead throughout 2021, both in the good times and the bad.

“I always get direction from people that know a hell of a lot more about these things than what I do but I feel quite comfortable delivering in that space and that’s why I identified that as an area where we could get some easy wins,” McMillan said. “Fortunately, everyone was on board and I think that played a critical part in us weathering the storm when things were a bit tough early on. But also when we started to win a few games, we never got ahead of ourselves and we stayed grounded. I think a lot of that stuff that we did around our culture assisted in that.”

Although McMillan spent time with the side throughout 2020, the new coach arrived this season without the same weight that perhaps some players had been carrying after their tough run throughout last year’s Super Rugby Aotearoa competition.

Following some promising signs during a compact pre-season, McMillan’s Chiefs entered their campaign full of hope and anticipation. The odd number of teams in the competition saw the Chiefs sit out the opening round, however, and despite getting off to a great start in their first match with the Highlanders, building a 20-6 lead, things unravelled in the second half and the Chiefs were consigned to their ninth straight loss.

The Chiefs could do little to hold out the force of nature that was Jona Nareki in their opening match of 2021. (Photo by Bruce Lim/Photosport)

That was when McMillan really came to terms with the burden born by his young team.

“I didn’t feel it until we lost the first game against the Highlanders,” he said. “Everything up until then had been really positive. We enjoyed our pre-season, we worked hard. We had some pretty encouraging signs through the first couple of pre-season games that we had.

“Unfortunately, we had to sit Round 1 out and watch everyone else play which, in hindsight, was probably detrimental. Just having those 80 minutes under our belt would have been beneficial going into the Highlanders week. But when we lost that… We absolutely dominated 40, 50 minutes of that game then capitulated and lost it.

“I’m not too sure I’ve actually been in a changing room that has felt so morbid. It was at that point that I could feel the heavy weight of disappointment and expectation, individually and collectively. I had a bit of a speech afterwards and just said, ‘Look, we’re better than what we showed and if keep working hard and we stay tight and we don’t concern ourselves with what sort of stuff the media chuck out, we just continue to believe that what we’re doing is moving us in the right direction, the tide will turn’. And it was always going to; there are too many good rugby players in that team to continue to lose forever.”

The tide did turn, of course, and the Chiefs proceeded to record five straight victories throughout the competition – starting with the comeback win over the Hurricanes.

It was more like relief than euphoria. I was happy for the players because we needed it, we needed it at that time.

McMillan on beating the Hurricanes to end the Chiefs’ 11-game losing streak

“It took a pretty extraordinary second 40 against the Hurricanes to bring it to life but then it was like the dog had been let off the chain,” McMillan said.

“It was more like relief than euphoria. I was happy for the players because we needed it, we needed it at that time. Even at that early stage of the competition, any hope of us making the final would probably have gone out the door after that. First two games, we thought it was going to be tough from there but to lose another one, we would have been gone.”

In fact, the Chiefs performed so well after getting the money off their backs that they were able to rest their key players for their final round-robin match.

The final didn’t fall their way and a solitary loss to the Reds during Super Rugby Trans-Tasman meant there were always going to be work-ons for 2022 but, by and large, it was a season to savour for McMillan and the Chiefs.

Unsurprisingly, the team’s strong performances throughout the year thrust a number of their stars back into the limelight, which helped their case for national selection.

Luke Jacobson has made a deserved return to the All Blacks in 2021. (Photo by Patrick Hamilton/Getty Images)

Quinn Tupaea and Samisoni Taukei’aho made their All Blacks debuts in July and Aidan Ross was temporarily called into the squad as an injury replacement, while the likes of Angus Ta’avao and Luke Jacobson earned deserved re-calls. Altogether, the Chiefs boast 10 of the 41 players summoned into the national side this year – sitting behind only the Crusaders, in terms of overall representation.

That’s a huge source of pride for their Super Rugby coach.

“It’s massively satisfying,” McMillan said. “I’m really proud for those guys.

“Quinn getting in, that’s always a proud moment, when you see someone get named as an All Blacks for the first time. And then you’ve got your established guys like Sam [Cane], Anton [Lienert-Brown], that are pretty entrenched in there now. But I’m particularly proud for the ones that had fallen out of favour and then managed to get recalls. I was really, really stoked for those guys.

“I now get excited now when I look at team namings and I count how many there are in there – ‘Oh yep, there are seven Chiefs in there this week, that’s a third of the squad’. That’s really satisfying.

Brodie Retallick is set to return to the fold next season, having spent the past two on sabbatical in Japan. Couple his arrival in Hamilton with the ongoing development of the young locks, as well as hooker Taukei’aho’s continued improvement in his delivery, and the lineout could emerge as a huge area of strength in 2022.

“I think the message there is when a team does well, individuals prosper. I’m sure there are a lot of people capable of playing in the All Blacks and if it comes down to a decision between one player and another and they’re both of equal experience, the decision generally goes to the guys who’s been in the team that’s been winning. We were far from the finished product this year but we won enough games and showed enough improvements to get a couple of those guys across the line.”

Indeed, there will be some key areas where McMillan and the Chiefs will be looking to improve ahead of next season.

The lineout didn’t necessarily function like a well-oiled machine in 2021, despite the countless hours invested by the now-departed Neil Barnes – which McMillan mostly accredits to their young locking group learning and developing as a unit.

21-year-old Tupou Vaa’i was the ‘senior head’ in the lineout this year, making 12 starts in the second row – the most by any Chiefs player in any position. He was joined by 20-year-old Josh Lord and 21-year-old Naitoa Ah Kuoi, while loose forwards Mitch Brown, Samipeni Finau and Zane Kapeli all filled in there too.

Brodie Retallick is set to return to the fold next season, having spent the past two on sabbatical in Japan. Couple his arrival in Hamilton with the ongoing development of the young locks, as well as hooker Taukei’aho’s continued improvement in his delivery, and the lineout could emerge as a huge area of strength in 2022.

Samisoni Taukei’aho made an instant impact for the All Blacks against Fiji after joining the game from the bench. (Photo by Michael Bradley/AFP)

Speaking of Taukei’aho, McMillan couldn’t be happier that the young rake has seamlessly slotted into the All Blacks’ environment and is making every post a winner.

“He was immense for us this year,” McMillan said. “I hope he doesn’t mind me saying but he was a high flight risk. You can imagine with the way that he plays, he was in high demand overseas.

“He could have elected to take some bloody decent money and set himself up for life by heading offshore but he wanted to chase the All Blacks dream and he believed that he could get there and we all believed he could get there. And it probably came earlier than what we anticipated – we were probably thinking a year or two down the track. But shoot, he’s made every post a winner since he got in there, hasn’t he?”

Perhaps the other area where the Chiefs will be hoping to make strides next season is in the outside backs, with McMillan handing six players starting opportunities in the wings throughout 2021, with none really taking their opportunities commanding selection week after week.

“It’s probably fair to say that the area where we’ve had the biggest scope to have movement in our squad has been in and around our outside backs,” McMillan revealed.

What you have to remember is everyone’s trying to find the same type of player so some teams have been quicker to pull the trigger. A few of the guys that we potentially looked at will end up in other teams, that’s just the nature of the beast.

McMillan on some of the challenges of player recruitment

“That’s partly because we’ve had some people coming off contract, we’ve had people like Damo head overseas, but also that there wasn’t any one individual that really sort of banged the door down last year and said ‘Hey, I’m the guy’.

“We had lots of guys that were more than adequate that did a great job for us, they’re safe, and what we’re just looking for is people who can potentially bring a little more influence through their performance and the way that they play. We’ve achieved that somewhat [through recruitment for 2022]. We’re happy with what we’ve got now.”

Unsurprisingly, McMillan was always going to take the lead on recruitment, even if Gatland had returned to the head coaching role, given his deep knowledge of the provincial game.

The disruption to the NPC, thanks to the global pandemic, may have made that job slightly tougher but with few players parting ways with the Chiefs for next season, McMillan has been able to bide his time and be especially deliberate with his signings.

“I’d say that we’re 99 per cent of the way there,” he said.

“We were certainly active in the [NPC] pre-season and through the first couple of rounds. What you have to remember is everyone’s trying to find the same type of player so some teams have been quicker to pull the trigger. A few of the guys that we potentially looked at will end up in other teams, that’s just the nature of the beast.

Former All Blacks pivot Josh Ioane is the one major signing the Chiefs have already unveiled for 2021. (Photo by Fiona Goodall/Getty Images)

“I’m not the sort of person who will rush into a signing. I want evidence, I want to find out a bit more about the person, be really clear on what they’re going to bring to the environment and sometimes that takes time. We’re probably 12 months away from being where we absolutely need to be but we’ve got a bloody good roster, I’m really excited about it.

“We’ve just got such a young team and we saw enough this year that we don’t need to change too much. It’s not an ageing team, it’s one at the beginning of their Super Rugby journey.

“We really feel like if we can keep this group together and get some really good cohesion, people understanding instinctively what people inside and outside them are going to do by virtue of the fact they’ve played a lot together, grow their experience… We understand that there are probably still going to be a few ups and down moving forward but it’s a pretty young group and one that I’m really excited about. I don’t think they’re anywhere near the ceiling but they’re already highly competitive.”

The Chiefs selectors have also, where possible, tried to hand opportunities to players local to the region, who are representing Counties Manukau, Waikato, Bay of Plenty and Taranaki.

In practice, that doesn’t always work out – and exceptions will always be made, especially when a player of Josh Ioane’s calibre comes calling, with McMillan describing his recruitment to the Chiefs as “multi-faceted”.

“He’s made it pretty clear that he wants to play 10 and he didn’t feel like he was getting the opportunities with the Highlanders,” McMillan said.

I don’t know how many times I get senior players coming to talk to us about other players looking for a change. Sometimes that leads to something and sometimes it’s just idle chat and rumours but in this instance, the stars just aligned.

McMillan on the recruitment of Josh Ioane

“He saw us as a team that he thought that he could potentially push for a starting position at 10. We’ve obviously got some pretty good ones, even in the absence of Damian [McKenzie], so he hasn’t been given any guarantees of having a rite of passage to the 10 jersey but he’s a recent All Black, we know that he’s a really quality player when he’s at his best and so sometimes, when players of that quality fall on your lap, you’ve got to give them serious consideration and that’s we did.

“We probably demonstrated this year that we preferred a model where we had dual pivots – for lack of a better term. In that regard, what we see is a pretty good like-for-like for Damian, even though Damian’s pretty unique. But in terms of skill-set and the willingness to attack, we think Josh will serve us pretty well in that area.”

McMillan already has a relationship with Ioane through the Maori All Blacks and he and his fellow coaches at the Chiefs are confident they can get the best out of the one-cap international, with a change in environments alone set to do wonders for the 26-year-old.

McMillan also revealed that the transfer was a product of the chatter that regularly occurs between professional players, as opposed to either party formally reaching out to the other in the first instance.

“Your best agent that you can have is the players,” McMillan said. “Players talk to other players around whether they’re enjoying their area, looking to head overseas, whether they’re looking for a change of scenery. I don’t know how many times I get senior players coming to talk to us about other players looking for a change. Sometimes that leads to something and sometimes it’s just idle chat and rumours but in this instance, the stars just aligned.

“We weren’t really looking for a 10 but we would have been looking for a fullback. In that outside backs space, there are some talented young players out there but we were probably wanting someone that was close to the level of experience of someone like Damo. For lots of reasons, Josh was just a good fit for us.”

Etene Nanai-Seturo showed some spark for the Chiefs on the left wing throughout the 2021 season. (Photo by Kerry Marshall/Getty Images)

Recruitment aside, McMillan has spent the off-season poring over data from the Chiefs season as well as reviewing games from around the world.

The self-described rugby obsessive has taken to coaching at this level of the game like a duck to water and by tapping into contests from around the world, hopes to widen his understanding of the sport and give his side any advantages he can heading into 2022.

With McMillan focusing on running the Chiefs, that leaves Gatland to concentrate on the wider franchise as a whole, including potentially revamping the high-performance pathways to better align the club with its feeder unions.

“I think we’ve got a lot of work to do in that [development pathway] space but there’s certainly a willingness on our behalf and, I think, our provincial unions to work collaboratively a lot better than what we have,” McMillan said.

“It might not happen overnight, it might take us three, five years to actually get to the model that we want to get to but the first start in that is actually being committed to wanting to do it and we’re certainly in that space.”

McMillan on long-term changes to the Chiefs’ high-development pathways

“There’s an opportunity for sharing resources – it’s a bit like having our players employed for six months over here but they go spend six months [with their provincial union]. Maybe something like that can be utilised in the coaching space, the physio space or the mental skills space?

“We can do a hell of a lot of things better than what we’ve been doing. A large part of our focus since we’ve finished the season has been around actually acknowledging that that’s something we really want to do, but not being renegade or cowboy-ish about it, but actually having some robust discussions and talking to the right people and not just rushing into things.

“It might not happen overnight, it might take us three, five years to actually get to the model that we want to get to but the first start in that is actually being committed to wanting to do it and we’re certainly in that space.”

In the here and now, however, McMillan has some more immediate goals, including getting off to a good start in next year’s Super Rugby Pacific competition.

With a full round-robin as well as regular international travel back on the menu, 2022 will be somewhat of a different beast for McMillan and the Chiefs. The challenges may keep coming for the first-year coach but, if 2021 is anything to go by, he’ll welcome them with open arms.

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