Warren Gatland wants Chiefs to play smarter

Date published: December 6 2019

New Chiefs head coach Warren Gatland has revealed that he will demand that the Hamilton-based side play smarter rugby under his guidance.

After a successful 12-year reign as Wales’ coach, Gatland returned to New Zealand to replace Colin Cooper as the Chiefs’ boss.

He started his new role this week and, although he is still finding his feet, he already has great plans for the two-time Super Rugby champions.

Apart from back-to-back tournament wins in 2012 and 2013, the Chiefs hold the record for the longest playoff-making streak (eight years) of any side in the competition.

Since their triumphant 2013 campaign, three other New Zealand teams have won the competition – the Highlanders, Hurricanes and Crusaders – while they have failed to make it past the semi-finals.

Gatland has signed a four-year deal with the Chiefs – which includes a sabbatical in 2021 to coach the British and Irish Lions – and has said anything but a quarter-final finish in 2020 would be a disappointment.

With all the knowledge built up from his time as a coach in the northern hemisphere, Gatland is hoping to take the team further by combining the Chiefs’ customary attacking flair with some more tactical nous.

“I come from the northern hemisphere, so we’re just going to play 10-man rugby and kick everything,” Gatland jokingly told Stuff.

“I think it’s important that you look at the talent and the quality of players that you’ve got. I love rugby being played in a positive vein. And the Chiefs have tended to go out there and play an expansive game, and we want to encourage them to do that, but we also want them to be smart.

“And talking to the other [assistant] coaches, they’ve felt that in the last couple of years they’ve tried to play a little bit too much rugby, and haven’t been smart about having the balance between playing a little bit of territory and putting pressure on other teams.”

Gatland said that the Chiefs may have looked like playing with ball-in-hand too much around the halfway mark of the field, then when a turnover was conceded they were under plenty of pressure and conceded tries.

To that end, he also feels the team’s set-piece will need to improve. Although the Chiefs have three All Blacks props in their squad, their second-row stocks look thin, especially with Brodie Retallick away playing in Japan.

“There’s some real players for the future and so we’ve got to fast-track them as quickly as we possibly can,” he said.

“You can’t coach experience. And sometimes those young players, whether it’s locks or front rowers, just have to spend time in the middle learning their trade.

“And with young players, as a coach you have to go through a bit of pain, because they are going to hurt you every now and again, as they are learning their roles they will make mistakes. And by making mistakes, that’s how they get better too.”

The Chiefs do still have plenty of talent in their ranks, however, and will be boosted when Aaron Cruden returns to reunite with Damian McKenzie as the team’s main playmakers, while fellow All Blacks Anton Lienert-Brown and Brad Weber have also impressed in the attacking department in recent seasons.

“The potential that this team has, and looking at the depth and some young talent… there’s a couple of holes in a couple of positions in terms of that, but the overall squad is pretty exciting over the next three or four years,” added Gatland.

“When you look at some of the other Super Rugby sides, I think we’re positioned really well.

“The challenge for me is creating an environment where players have worked hard but they have some confidence and belief in themselves.”

With plenty of coaching experience and with the added pressure of being a hometown boy, Gatland admitted that there are “massive” expectations for him to be successful. But, he is up for the challenge and will use that as extra motivation

“That drives you on as a coach, because there are so many expectations and it makes you work harder and want it more,” he said.

“That’s professional sport. And it’s sometimes a rollercoaster, you can’t be successful all the time. For me, success isn’t always about winning, it’s about overachieving.”