Gregor Paul

Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer

Rugby: Waikato influence diluted

Liam Messam (left) plays for both the Chiefs and Waikato but most of his Super Rugby team-mates do not. Photo / Getty Images
Liam Messam (left) plays for both the Chiefs and Waikato but most of his Super Rugby team-mates do not. Photo / Getty Images

The Waikato-based Chiefs illustrate how Super Rugby sides are no longer constructed on regimented provincial lines, writes Gregor Paul.

What's more amazing than the Chiefs winning Super Rugby is that they won it with just two Waikato players in the team that started the final.

In these days of direct franchise contracting, New Zealand's Super Rugby sides are no longer constructed on regimented provincial lines. The Highlanders only have two Otago players in their squad; the Chiefs have only nine men from Waikato and fewer than half the Hurricanes squad play their provincial rugby for Wellington.

Only a few years ago, the landscape was entirely different: the big five - Auckland, Waikato, Wellington, Canterbury and Otago - provided the majority of players in their respective geographically-aligned franchises.

It was almost as rare for one of the other franchise partners - the likes of Taranaki, Hawke's Bay and Manawatu in the case of the Hurricanes - to provide a squad member as it was one for one to be drafted from outside the catchment area.

Taranaki and Hawke's Bay are now major providers of Super Rugby players, providing 12 each. Even Manawatu provide eight players, though none at the Hurricanes.

The trend is decisive - players are happy now to play their Super Rugby in one part of the country and shift somewhere else for the ITM Cup. But whether this situation will reverse as Super Rugby sides take greater independent control of their development programmes is interesting. They may access bigger budgets if private investment is allowed.

The Chiefs will make a fascinating case study. It was six years ago their board struck upon the plan to emulate the Crusaders and build Waikato into the commanding province of the region - then flow that through to the Chiefs. Everyone was sure that the Crusaders' success was partly a result of only having one serious province in the catchment area.

Now the Chiefs have a title and a squad that looks set to be dominant for some time and the influence of Waikato has been massively reduced.

What makes it even harder to fathom is that Waikato were finalists in both 2010 and 2011.

Some of the dilution has been driven by the background of the coaching staff; Dave Rennie arrived after four seasons with Manawatu, which is why he signed Aaron Cruden, Mike Fitzgerald and Asaeli Tikoirotuma. Assistant coach Tom Coventry was co-coach at Hawke's Bay - hence Brodie Retallick, Kane Thompson, Ben Tameifuna, Andrew Horrell and Maritino Nemani's inclusion. The coaches were drawn to players they knew but future success depends on ensuring Waikato is operating at full potential in talent identification and development.

Just because players are able to spread themselves geographically doesn't mean they should be encouraged. Every Super Rugby side will be missing an easy trick if they don't have strong links with their "host" province.

"Ideally I would like to see our players push through to Super Rugby contracted to the Chiefs," says Waikato coach Chris Gibbes.

"Central contracting means that won't always be the case but we have good relationships with the Chiefs coaches and open and honest communication with them about what they are looking for, what they want and where various players are sitting on their radar."

A few gaps have opened in the Chiefs' playing roster, with Sona Taumalolo, Thompson, Scott Waldrom and Sonny Bill Williams all departing. There may be a few other casualties - those on the fringes who the coaches remain unsure about - and the vacancies will most likely be filled by those players who impress in the ITM Cup.

Charlie Ngatai has been signed by Waikato, instantly increasing their representation at the Chiefs next year and there are high hopes in the region for age-grade stars prop Fraser Armstrong, hooker Marcus Hanley and last year's New Zealand Secondary Schools fullback Joe Webber.

Developing these players is important, says Gibbes. "But first and foremost the ITM Cup is about winning," he says. "Winning is still the most important part of the process."

Waikato have come up one game short in the last two years and maybe if they can go one better, that will be reflected in the number of players they have promoted to the Chiefs.

- Herald on Sunday

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