In Clayton McMillan, several of the Chiefs’ top brass are convinced that they are working alongside a special coach in the making.
There was always something a bit different about the man, who at the very beginning of his interim role at the helm of the Chiefs, made a few bold statements about where the team could look to go after their well-documented torrid run of results.
McMillan, widely seen by many as a coach to watch for the future but not necessarily one for the now, felt that the time had come to talk about the Chiefs’ identity and culture.
Just what this thing called ‘Chiefs Mana’ meant to the modern-day organisation was a key theme of the discussion when McMillan sat down with The XV back in January ahead of the Super Rugby Aotearoa season.
“There is a really strong identity here,” McMillan said. “We talk a lot about Chiefs Mana as a team and an organisation at large but I think if a lot of people were asked the question of what it actually is, I’m not sure they’d all be able to articulate very well what it looks like and feels like.”
It was an almighty ballsy suggestion for a rookie coach at Super Rugby level to put forward fresh into his debut preseason. The easier and perhaps safer path would’ve been to talk about how systems and processes aid the on-field product.
Not one to shy away from hard work, the former Rotorua policeman wasn’t about to wade in with grand ideas about what needed fixing in any major way but, at the same time, few were convinced that the Chiefs’ on-field issues were simply a matter of being on the wrong side of lady luck in Super Rugby Aotearoa’s notoriously tight encounters.
A painstaking review into the disastrous 0-9 losing run had already taken place, and according to senior All Black and Chiefs midfielder Anton Lienert-Brown, the team had hit something close to an all-time low.
“In a way we hit rock bottom and last year’s review made us look deep into what’s happening within this whole environment,” Lienert-Brown told The XV. “We changed a lot of things and we’re operating better as a team and an organisation now because there is a lot of good habits that we’re all living by.”
We talk a lot about Chiefs Mana as a team and an organisation at large but I think if a lot of people were asked the question of what it actually is, I’m not sure they’d all be able to articulate very well what it looks like and feels like.
It’s easy to credit culture when a team is experiencing a winning streak instead of a losing one, but a key theme of the 2021 version of the Chiefs is how they appear to have executed the art of ensuring that outside noise never enters the dressing room, even in the bad times.
Unlike his predecessor, McMillan has never spoken publicly about his issues with refereeing decisions. There has also been a sense of internal calm about the man which has been obvious for all to see.
Even when staring down the barrel of the worst losing record for a New Zealand side in Super Rugby, McMillan couldn’t hold back a smile when asked about how the team was coping.
“There’s no need to make a bigger issue of the fact that we’ve lost a few games,” McMillan said following the early season loss to the Highlanders. “It ultimately comes down to process and we will learn from these experiences and turn the corner pretty soon.”
It’s the lack of panic and sense of belief that struck Lienert-Brown most, particularly when the team equaled that unwanted streak.
“I reckon he [McMillan] has something special about him,” Lienert-Brown said. “The way he interacts with the boys is special and that’s what a really good coach does because he reads the team well, he gets the players input and he’s honest.
“One of the key things is that he’s a great communicator who is clear and decisive in what he wants which is what you really need from a head coach. He’s done some amazing work within this environment and really put that Chiefs Mana identity back into the frame and we know our identity again, which is good.”
The ingredients McMillan is applying aren’t too dissimilar to an approach taken back in 2012/2013, where the emphasis was around hard work, clear communication and expectation, and an internal drive to be better men on and off the park.
One thing that gives me confidence is that during my coaching journey it seems have been that I’ve inherited teams that are not necessarily the most talented on paper or have the best rosters.
Dave Rennie, now coaching the Wallabies, and Wayne Smith were the pair to usher in the original era of Chiefs Mana.
Rennie was all about embracing a rebuilt culture of good men and ‘no dickheads’; Smith was an out and out rugby mastermind who understood what it took to keep things simple when asking for performance of a world-class level.
McMillan admits that when he came into the environment nearly a decade later, there was still a real sense of belonging to those glory days.
Some had taken on the mantle of preserving and teaching mana, and whilst their hard work wasn’t lost on McMillan, the new coach also identified that many others in the environment were still learning, and perhaps wondering, what mana actually is.
“The depth and knowledge of it [Chiefs Mana] has probably been diminished somewhat because many people have moved on and those that have been responsible for keeping it going have done a good job,” McMillan said, “but there is an art toward the current team making this thing its own and our depth and knowledge will be reflected in the way we play.”
It’s a way of working that McMillan has been used to throughout the tenure of his coaching career thus far, a career that includes an NPC title victory with Bay of Plenty and a continuing stint as head of the Maori All Blacks.
“One thing that gives me confidence is that during my coaching journey it seems have been that I’ve inherited teams that are not necessarily the most talented on paper or have the best rosters,” he told The XV.
“We’ve had to scrap for every bit of success and in doing that, you learn the value of respecting people and creating a culture that people want to be a part of because they know what they contribute to the wider cause.”
The scrapping has paid dividends so far this season, with the Chiefs now finding themselves within reaching distance of a place in the final of Super Rugby Aotearoa. Much of that can be put down to the character within the squad, but it also makes for some interesting conversations around the water-cooler, especially if the Waikato-based franchise were to go all the way.