Gatland tactics the real reason for Chiefs' woes?
Whichever way the bread is sliced, it’s hard to deny that the Chiefs may be getting a bit of a pass for some of their failings in Super Rugby Aotearoa.
For Warren Gatland, apparently the best coach going around, his 0-8 record since March certainly leaves more questions than answers as the debrief into what went wrong begins after one last hit out against the Hurricanes.
Some of the reaction from rugby fans in wake of the Chiefs’ worst ever season is both wildly unfair but tinged with a small bit of merit.
Remember Colin Cooper? The knives were certainly out when he coached the Chiefs to a 0-4 start to Super Rugby in 2019.
No such treatment for Warren Gatland, yet the record under his reign is far worse.
Does that mean Gatland should resign?
No, such a statement is laughable considering his pedigree.
However, there is merit in exploring whether or not that coaching style fits with this Chiefs team while also taking a look at some of the talk that has come out of the camp during this difficult run of results.
Explanations for the Chiefs woeful form in Super Rugby Aotearoa cover two key areas.
Firstly, the intensity of playing New Zealand Super Rugby franchises each week and the toll that this takes on players who all compare the Kiwi derbies to test matches. No excuses are being made there, the Chiefs know that they’ve come up short of the standard required.
There’s also been some of the contentious calls by referees, at least one of which clearly cost the Chiefs getting a win against the Blues, and the team itself has been more than a little vocal about that.
The losing margin? Typically, by no more than five points, but that doesn’t tell the real story of what’s gone wrong here, nor should it excuse Gatland getting what feels like an obvious free pass from some in the media.
Nobody is asking the following question – is the collective coaching style at odds with several of the key playmakers in this team?
Does it truly fit the Chiefs DNA?
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Flair appears to be missing from the Chiefs game, the playing style feels more scripted when watching with the naked eye.
Look no further than the number of kicks in what is a playing tactic clearly built around territory and little else.
This style doesn’t suit Brad Weber and Damian McKenzie, two of the more common kickers for the Chiefs this season, but their efforts are also hampered by the fact that possession isn’t coming as a consequence due to issues winning against the throw at line-out time or not being in a reasonable position to contest in the air.
The opposition has been quick to realise that the best way to hamper any decent go forward ball for the Chiefs is to play for territory themselves, which begins the Chiefs’ cycle of kicking from inside their own half all over again.
As good as Lachlan Boshier has been at the breakdown, many of his turnovers are happening when the Chiefs are defending inside their own 22.
It’s all well and good to hail the 25-year old as the new turnover king in New Zealand Rugby, but it actually does little to solve the Chiefs’ problems if it’s always happening when grimly defending their own line.
Not being in the right areas of the park is a big reason why the Chiefs have scored just 12 tries in their seven games this season.
Execution wise, they’ve probably let a handful of opportunities go by the wayside with the attacking go forward ball they’ve had, something that has come from a good driving maul in a line-out that has improved consistently.
The Chiefs’ ability to score first rather than chase the game from behind has been a major problem.
Against the Highlanders where a 24-0 lead was lost for example.
Perhaps this was the only time this entire season that the Chiefs can say they’ve gotten off to a decent start with their noses in front on the scoresheet. In response, the Chiefs have played some truly gritty rugby and have always kept themselves within a sniff of getting the win.
But again, the key question here shouldn’t be that of bad luck and poor referee decisions, it should be about the way the game is being played because right now it feels foreign from Chiefs sides of the past.
In turn, it’s making the key playmakers look terrible in the eyes of the general rugby pundit.
For the likes of McKenzie, perhaps just shy of speed and general confidence, the key to unlocking that explosive talent is not by directing such a formulaic way of playing, but allowing the Southland-born smiling assassin to play the unstructured razzle-dazzle style that made him one of the hottest properties in the game today out of fullback.
With Clayton McMillan set to step into the Chiefs coaching role once Gatland departs for the 2021 campaign, and an expected shake-up of the assistant coaching staff, it will be more than a little interesting to see how the Chiefs go next year in terms of their playing style.
Nobody is questioning that Gatland is a fantastic coach. Nobody is questioning the clear and obvious fact that the Chiefs have been on the wrong end of some dubious calls by the referees in Super Rugby Aotearoa, and, certainly, nobody is understating just how intense this competition is for a side that’s 0-8 against quality Kiwi franchises.
What should be questioned is how the Chiefs have opted to play their rugby this season.
The worst thing that can happen here is for fans and media alike to put an asterisk next to it all and put it down to a great coach and a great team simply not getting the rub of the green because the real answer is, as always, probably far more complicated than that.
By Michael Pulman, RugbyPass
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