How we talk about team culture
“If you say rugby unifies New Zealand, if you say better people make better players and if we are going to pay young men six times the average wage when they are 21, we have to accept criticism if we dip below the moral line.”
Neil Sorensen – General Manager, New Zealand Rugby
Discussion of the concept of team culture in rugby is dominated by the All Blacks’ coaching and playing environment. This environment is lauded for the level of on-pitch performance it produces, but is often derided by detractors for its apparent hypocrisy: Steve Hansen declaring that “good people make good All Blacks” is juxtaposed with numerous negative stories involving symbols of this culture such as Aaron Smith and Dan Carter. This reading stems from the way in which sporting behaviour is traditionally couched in moral terms: we talk about a player showing integrity, bravery and heart and extrapolate from this an individual moral judgement, when in reality all we can really deduce is a professional’s aptitude and willingness to work hard to achieve a desired goal.
Parsing Hansen’s comments on his team environment, we can see that he too is guilty of this elision – it is the latter which he essentially interprets as the key to his “good people”, “no dickheads” policy: “For us we are trying to find people of good character…because if they have got good character they will have good character on the track under pressure. Invariably the people who are dickheads off the track are the ones who wilt when they are on it.”
Hansen’s dealings with the media are instructive in the way that they prioritise the team environment above all else: we can see this in his treatment of the Owen Franks case last summer, and his circling of the wagons in the wake of Steven Luatua’s signing with Bristol. Gregor Townsend’s handling of the controversy surrounding Conor Murray’s standing leg is in the same vein: a statement designed to address the events not in their wider context (player safety in the case of Murray and Franks, and a professional player’s freedom of choice in the case of Luatua), but in the context of their effect on the team environment.
A key distinction to draw in this discussion is between the development of an environment which prioritises ethics above all else, and one which prioritises high performance. It is difficult to appraise team environments from an external perspective, but public evidence (e.g. James Kerr’s book ‘Legacy’) suggests that the All Blacks’ team ‘culture’ draws on different elements and directs them towards the elevation of on-field standards: off-field behaviour is prioritised because of the obvious effect it can have on the pitch, and is always subservient to this ultimate goal. Think of the mantra ‘good people make good All Blacks’: the focus is on the creation of ‘good All Blacks’ (i.e. good players), with individual behaviour a means to that end. ‘Legacy’ is a book about a high performance culture, aimed at those seeking to replicate an unquestionably exemplary high performance culture. Individual behaviour is no small part of that, but undoubtedly does not represent the end goal. Dave Brailsford and Team Sky have shown the danger inherent in stating clearly a desire to be seen as both a ‘high performance’ & an ‘ethical’ culture, but Hansen & New Zealand have stopped short of drawing that same equivalence themselves.
The Chiefs’ team environment under Dave Rennie has been lauded for its ability to drive on-field performance, but also for its connection with the region’s cultural heritage. Over the past 12 months, however, the franchise has been forced to confront a number of off-field behavioural issues which have called the integrity of the environment into question. While, from the Chiefs’ perspective, the loss of key leaders such as Craig Clarke, Tanerau Latimer and Sonny Bill Williams from their 2012-2013 vintage along with the relative youth and inexperience of their 2016 playing group – the starting 15 that contested last year’s semi-final had an average age of 23.4, compared to the 2012 title-winning team’s 25.5 – may serve as a convenient rationalisation of these events, in truth the problems of tolerance and patriarchy which underly these issues permeate many sporting cultures, and have long been a significant failing of rugby in New Zealand in particular. We can – rightly – criticise the Chiefs for allowing the manifestation of these issues in their team environment, but the widespread evidence suggests that they are more deeply entrenched within the nation’s sporting culture.
New Zealand Rugby has excelled at creating high performance environments which fit well with a traditional set of values, but what the past 12 months may have provided is the required impetus to change those outdated values. As Neil Sorensen made clear in the interview quoted above, NZR have come to accept that they are accountable for the perception and reputation of their rugby culture both at home and abroad – and that New Zealand as a nation is becoming less and less tolerant of Kiwi rugby’s long-entrenched mentality of exceptionalism.
Over the offseason, Tew, Sorensen and the Super Rugby franchises have attempted to implement positive changes to these values: the Crusaders appointed a former New Zealand Police superintendent as personal development manager to work with players off the field, NZR covered issues such as consent with players at the start of their Super Rugby careers at an induction day in November, and former Black Fern Farah Palmer became the first woman elected to the NZR board in December 2016. These are only preliminary steps, however, and whether substantial public progress can be made with Steve Tew’s tarnished reputation as the organisation’s figurehead is certainly open to question. What cannot be argued is that they are steps taken in the right direction, and it can be hoped that – in the manner that the modern high-performance culture of the All Blacks rose from the aftermath of Ellis Park in 2004 – the events of 2016 serve as a line in the sand for New Zealand Rugby, and kickstart long-overdue reform of the game’s place within its own country.
The Chiefs’ attack during the 2016 season was one of the most thrilling in Super Rugby, and by many metrics one of the most effective: they scored the second-most points and tries per game in the competition, and got over the advantage line on an incredible 70% of their carries – a full 6% better than the Lions, the 2nd ranked team. This ability to make positive carries and create clean breaks was tied to the number of different playmakers Dave Rennie could field across the backline, and in particular the dual first receiver system operated with Aaron Cruden at 10 and Damian McKenzie at 15. This was favoured by Rennie more and more as the season went on, and New Zealand deployed it in a similar fashion when the Chiefs pairing started at fly-half and fullback respectively in Rome in November. Its effectiveness is largely due to the way in which it increases the speed of reorganisation of attack and creates 1v1s around the breakdown for McKenzie, but it also gets Cruden into positive match-ups in wider channels – while he lacks the acceleration and top-end speed of Beauden Barrett, his footwork and manipulation of angles at the gain-line are second to none.
The Chiefs averaged 1.5 passes and offloads per carry during 2016 (second only to the Crusaders), and the way in which McKenzie, Anton Lienert-Brown and James Lowe in particular are able to create offloading opportunities was key to the success of their attack:
Seta Tamanivalu provided a power option at centre to complement these playmakers, while also showing a well-developed attacking kicking game which provided a number of try-scoring opportunities. The master of the Chiefs’ kicking game, however, was Cruden. His ability to read a defence and find players accurately – off both feet – while flat on the gain line is unparalleled in world rugby:
The obverse of their intent to attack from all parts of the field was evident in their two fixtures against the Hurricanes. Even though playing out from the back produced an early try in the R9 fixture, handling errors on exit and kick return inside their own half led to two scores for the opposition. Only a final-minute dropped pass by Jason Woodward after the Chiefs turned the ball over in midfield preserved their victory in conference play, and a litany of forced and unforced handling errors – along with a stronger tactical kicking performance from TJ Perenara and Beauden Barrett – meant that the result was reversed in the semi-final.
It would be easy to recommend that the Chiefs tighten up their exit play and mitigate the riskier elements of their gameplan, but part of Super Rugby’s maddening brilliance is its hesitance to embrace such concepts. Dave Rennie is unlikely to make many changes to their tactical approach in his final season before heading north to replace Gregor Townsend at Glasgow, and we may hope that he has the courage of his attacking convictions. His side gave themselves an excellent chance at reaching the final in 2016, having created numerous try-scoring chances in the semi-final loss in Wellington, and the attacking resources he has at his disposal mean that he could easily be signing off in 6 months’ time with a third Super Rugby title to his name.
The loss of Brad Weber to season-ending injury is huge for the Chiefs’ attack: his support play was a key part of so many of their tries last season, and they looked at their most fluent going forward with him – rather than Tawera Kerr-Barlow – at 9. Question marks also abound in the midfield, where Charlie Ngatai is still recovering from a concussion and Seta Tamanivalu has moved to the Crusaders; Taranaki centre Johnny Fa’auli will likely get the first shot at replacing Ngatai at inside centre, but a 12-13 partnership of Anton Lienert-Brown and Tim Nanai-Williams may be utilised. Shaun Stevenson was one of the most impressive players on show at the Brisbane Global Tens, and should get regular gametime in a deep back three.
In the 2016 Mitre 10 Cup, two 19 year old inside backs were entrusted with significant roles in their sides’ campaigns: Hawke’s Bay’s Tiaan Falcon and Taranaki’s Stephen Perofeta. Neither player made the full NZ Secondary Schools squad in 2015, but both were taking the field in top-level domestic rugby less than a year later. Kaleb Trask – one of the most impressive players in the 2016 NZ Schools Barbarians team, in which Perofeta and Falcon played a year previously – will be looking to emulate their path for Bay of Plenty in 2017, with whom he has already signed an academy contract.
A notable feature of performances by NZ Schools representative sides over the past two years has been an outstanding tactical kicking game. Wiseguy Faiane and Tim Hogan put Australian Schoolboys under huge pressure for NZSS in their 2015 win, while Blues prospect Harry Plummer was superb in the same fixture in 2016. Head coach Ryan Martin’s 2016 Barbarians side played with excellent width on the ball in their two games against Fiji and Australia, but Trask’s decision-making and accuracy with the boot was also hugely important:
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