Chris Rattue

Chris Rattue is a sports columnist for the New Zealand Herald.

Rugby: Chiefs - secrets of the winners

Maori culture is foundation of back-to-basics franchise's success, researcher discovers

The haka is only one of many Maori influences in the Chiefs' culture and their approach to rugby.
The haka is only one of many Maori influences in the Chiefs' culture and their approach to rugby.

An academic has lifted the lid on how the Chiefs have won Super Rugby titles, highlighting the use of Maori cultural themes and responsibility to the community.

Jeremy Hapeta, a former Manawatu captain, analysed the Chiefs as part of his Massey University PhD thesis examining how players perform at their peak.

Hapeta says it showed collective identity turned a failing franchise into double champions under Dave Rennie and a coaching team in which veteran Wayne Smith was a majorinfluence.

Hapeta says while some of this had been previously reported, he was able to dig deeper.

He found a team that made picnic tables together, went on a historical Tainui voyage, and used adversity to build ties with the community.

This togetherness took hold from the outset, when players, management and families helped build the new Chiefs' base in a Ruakura Research Centre warehouse.

"Wayne Smith told me the franchise was half a million in the red at the end of 2011 - they pretty much had nothing to work with," says Hapeta, whose project was assisted by former Black Ferns captain Dr Farah Palmer.

"They have a bit of money now yet still got together at the start of this year and built picnic tables. Buying them would have gone against everything they had built up over the past couple of seasons.

"They have adopted and acknowledged their local landscape, gone back to their roots, stripped everything back and asked 'Who are we and what are we about?'.

"The modern player is criticised for being a bit self-centred but the Chiefs seem to have bought into something a lot bigger than themselves."

Smith told the researcher: "Fundamentally, we wanted good buggers ... we wanted more than just a cultural change - essentially creating a champion team is a spiritual act. Not everyone's cup of tea, but definitely ours.

"We sought an identity and have ended up honouring it. Character was definitely important when selecting the team. We play for our people and our region, which we've travelled over.

"The hardship and sweat we put into it meant we all had more skin in the game. From adversity came this huge pride and mana that has driven us. We are all very proud of it."

The travel included riding bikes to training before the 2012 playoffs, when Hamilton clubs and schools came to the rescue after the Chiefs' ground became swampy.

The following season they re-traced a Tainui voyage with team building in Waihi, cycling to Waihi and activities such as visiting an important battlefield.

Hapeta says Smith has succeeded at the Crusaders and Chiefs, franchises with vastly different cultural bases, by honouring locality rather than imposing a formula. Rennie and Smith both talked about traditional Maori physicality as playing a big part in building the team culture.

Hapeta quotes Rennie as saying: "Our attack and defence are based around Maori themes ... our defence is Tainui in regards to that sort of big wave or wall in front. We call our attack stuff paoa, to strike, to attack. The boys have bought into it and it's helped us grow."

Hapeta says: "A change in team culture appears to embrace things Maori in the way the team prepares for games, [plans] strategies prior to and during games, and celebrates after games."

Read more: Blues 'lacking team culture'

- NZ Herald

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