Gregor Paul

Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer

Rugby: Franchises reap rewards of top management

There is no substitute for quality when it comes to coaching.

It has taken a while, but the penny would appear to have finally dropped in New Zealand that quality coaching is worth the investment.

Once the poor relations of the professional fraternity in New Zealand, coaches are now enjoying better pay and greater choice with almost double the number of Super Rugby jobs compared with two years ago.

The total budget for a Super Rugby coaching team was about $500,000 a few years back, now the New Zealand sides are spending closer to $1 million on their coaching teams. The big difference is the size of the teams and the greater value placed on the assistant and technical roles, although it is also believed head coaches are now being paid between 10 and 20 per cent more than they were in 2010.

The Chiefs and Blues are the best examples of how much impact an experienced coaching team can have - with both franchises immediately improving after significant investment was made in management teams.

The Chiefs broke the mould last year by creating a four-man team that included former All Black assistant Wayne Smith and the Blues have set up a similar structure under head coach John Kirwan, who persuaded former All Black coach Graham Henry to act in a similar capacity to Smith.

They have both taken risks by spending big and the Chiefs have been rewarded with a title, while the signs are promising that the Blues will at least feature in the right half of the table this year.

With the link made between improved coaching and improved performance, the landscape is likely to be permanently changed.

Since the earliest days of professionalism, most of the available money in the game has flowed into the pockets of the players. Coaches and the various specialists such as medics, trainers and physios have historically been deemed lower priority - paid what is left after players have been retained.

Those charged with running franchises have tended to look exclusively at the quality of the playing squad and been inclined to believe that it will be solely responsible for delivering the right outcome. That attitude has been inadvertently supported by the national body who continue to pay for a head coach, assistant coach and team doctor only.

That model of funding was fine in the beginning of Super Rugby when squad sizes were smaller and the competition shorter. But now teams run with squads of 37 - the wider training unit is virtually full-time - and the season stretches from February to August with a possible 19 games to be endured.

The enlarged logistics have been a driver towards change - it's just not feasible for a head coach and assistant coach to manage 37 players effectively.

But the bigger driver to this changed landscape has been the realisation that coaches have a vital role to play. Coaching has been an undervalued and under-appreciated profession.

New Zealand has never had any problems finding raw athletes; promising young players. Yet that has rarely proven to be enough to consistently perform and win titles.

Last year, the Chiefs made a conscious decision to dig into their player budget and allocate some of that money to pay for their enlarged coaching team. That compromised their ability to secure certain players but they felt the trade-off was worth it.

The Blues, who operated last season with just two full-time coaches as opposed to the Chiefs' four - have also been converted to believe in the value of coaching. "Coaching resource was one of the issues that came up strongly [in the end of season review]," says Blues chief executive Andy Dalton. "There was no prolonged debate [at board level], we were unanimous that we wanted to get the best coaching team we could. It's not just a numbers game either, it is about having a team with real calibre."

The quality of coaching across the country is enviable: there are two former All Black head coaches in Henry and Smith; a handful of others with international experience - John Kirwan (Italy and Japan), Todd Blackadder (Scotland), Tom Coventry (Samoa), Jamie Joseph (NZ Maori) and Mick Byrne, who is the current All Black skills coach.

In Australia, maybe the Brumbies, and at a push the Waratahs could be said to have comparable depth of talent and experience in their coaching teams while the South African sides have promising rather than proven talent in their coaching teams.

- Herald on Sunday

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