IT’S NOT hard to understand why some in the New Zealand rugby media might be taking a little bit of joy out of the Chiefs recent losing run in Super Rugby Aotearoa. Losing eight games on the spin is enough to heap pressure on any coach at any level at any club and Warren Gatland is no different after the Chiefs loss to the Crusaders at home this weekend.
The knives are out. Am I surprised? No. Just three years ago, Gatland was a pantomime villain in New Zealand as he accused the local media of running a smear campaign against him during the Lions Tour so the reaction to his struggles in Super Rugby Aotearoa.
There’s certainly an element of recency bias to the Chief’s troubles. Prior to the lockdown, the Chiefs were fifth overall in Super Rugby, third in the New Zealand conference and boasted a W over the Crusaders at home alongside a big away win over the Blues in Auckland.
It’s hard to know how the Chiefs would have fared over the rest of Super Rugby 2020 in a non-pandemic reality but I think it’s a fair assumption that Gatland probably wouldn’t be staring at the kind of record that he’s looking at today. Results-wise, there’s no argument that it’s been a poor run but context is everything.
Trading last-minute drop goals to lose the opening game against the Highlanders by a point was unfortunate and the manner of their implosion in the second half against the same opponent a few rounds later that saw them lose a 24-7 lead would be enough to damn any coach.
Throw in a few contentious losses with a hint of refereeing injustice and a few narrow losses in what has an argument for being the most top-heavy, high-quality mini-league in club rugby and you can see how Gatland and the Chiefs ended up where they find themselves.
That said, it isn’t all bad luck and refereeing decisions that are costing the Chiefs. I don’t think it’s fair to assess the Chiefs’ poor run without mentioning their absentee list. Their second-row has been pretty badly hit.
They lost Brodie Retallick to a Japanese sabbatical before the season and then lost Michael Allerdice and Laghlan McWhannell to season-ending injuries prior to Super Rugby Aotearoa. Tyler Ardron, a talented flanker who had been deputising for them in the second-row during Super Rugby, left to go Castres Olympique at the end of June.
Any side in the world would miss Brodie Retallick, a second row who could comfortably claim to be one of the top five players in the game in the position but a side that’s missing two of their other specialist senior locks at the same time makes it a crisis point.
So it’s fair to say that Gatland has been working with a reduced hand in a number of crucial areas and that, naturally, will have a knock-on effect on results. The front five injuries and sabbaticals alone would be enough to substantially affect most sides but that context tends to get lost after your fourth loss in a row and is actively ignored by the time your eight loss on the spin rolls about.
That’s just life at the top end of professional rugby. In the medium term, Gatland is due to leave the Chiefs for the Lions year, to be replaced by Clayton McMillan as an interim coach.
McMillian will have a cleared injury list – you would hope – and a returned Brodie Retallick in the ranks. Retallick alone will make all the difference but a fresh Luke Jacobsen and Nathan Harris alongside the likes of Sam Cane, Lachlan Boshier and Nepu Laulala will make a world of difference.
The Chiefs have decisions to make in certain contracts but the base is already there to seriously improve on what has been a disappointing Super Rugby Aotearoa campaign so far. The ultimate moral of the story is, don’t count out Warren Gatland just yet.