Patrick McKendry

Patrick McKendry is a rugby writer for the Herald.

Rugby: Soaring Chiefs help Smith erase his regrets

Wayne Smith. Photo / NZPA.
Wayne Smith. Photo / NZPA.

The first thing Wayne Smith did when he introduced himself to his Chiefs players last year was talk of his regret at not getting the opportunity to wear the Waikato jersey.

Now the former All Blacks assistant coach is dreaming of winning his third Super Rugby title after leading the Crusaders to their first two in 1998 and 1999.

And, having decided not to take on a head coaching job with England, he wants to stay at the Chiefs until 2015. This is where the Chiefs assistant coach feels at home, among his people in the Waikato and a group of players who he says are the hardest working he has been involved with, apart from the All Blacks.

Smith has long been associated with Canterbury and the Crusaders - his try in 1982 for the red and blacks against Wellington at Athletic Park brought the Ranfurly Shield to Christchurch and resulted in mayhem at the airport, such was the crush to welcome home the team.

After a stint as Hawkes Bay Rugby chief executive following his time coaching in Italy, he returned to Christchurch to coach the Crusaders. But he's a Waikato boy at heart, as he insisted at a Chiefs pre-season camp.

"The camp would have been mid-November and I got up to speak to the team and I told them the history of how I nearly came to play for Waikato," he says.

"I was on the bench for a game against Auckland when I was in the under-21 team. My dream had always been to play for Waikato but I had to go to Christchurch Teachers' College so I never got to pull on the Waikato jersey.

"How exciting it was to be with kids like me who had come through the region and were able to contribute to the Chiefs.

"You could feel even in that first week there was something special there. We had a young group, eight guys who had never played Super Rugby, but they had good character and we had a young coaching group who were pretty bloody keen and we got a lot of coaching time so it was exciting right from the start.

"I thought if we got this right, we could be good enough to at least make a bit of a splash. I don't think any of us ... we all hoped that something like this would happen but if you'd said this is where you'd be at the end of the year, jeez, you'd be pretty excited."

The Chiefs, under head coach Dave Rennie and assistants Tom Coventry, Andrew Strawbridge and Smith, have something special brewing in Hamilton. Their new headquarters in Ruakura on the site of the former meat and wool research centre are large, with room to develop and, better yet, all their own.

It's a unique place and it gives the Chiefs an advantage over the other New Zealand franchises, all of which have fairly modest facilities.

But after game one and a bad loss to the Highlanders at Waikato Stadium that resulted in long-term injuries to five players, things were not looking good. It's a testament to the players and coaches that they fought back to lead the competition for so long, until a final-round loss to the Hurricanes in Wellington dropped them to second.

They will host a semifinal on Friday night in front of what is likely to be a capacity crowd. "Jeez , we got a kick in the arse [in the Highlanders defeat], mainly because of the five guys we lost," Smith says. "Ben Afeaki, Toby Smith, Lelia Masaga, Brendon Leonard, Alex Bradley. They were all long-term ones. I remember in the changing rooms, we were shell-shocked.

"The board were coming in and they were pretty grim. We were thinking, 'hell, what's going to happen here? Who are we going to get?'. It forced us to play the young guys, such as Ben Tameifuna, Tawera Kerr Barlow. We were lucky with Sona Taumalolo because we had no other props, really. We had Shane Cleaver but he had a concussion problem so he was short term, Josh Hohneck from Bay of Plenty who's going to be bloody good. If we hadn't had Sona, who played the first eight or nine games in a row until Toby came back, we would have been shot.

"Obviously we selected the right people because the young guys got opportunities and they were superb. We took the Blues apart in that first game and to beat the Crusaders away ... I don't suppose anyone saw that coming. And then to go right through to the Reds [without losing], that was incredible."

Smith, 55, signed with the franchise before the World Cup triumph and says he wasn't sure how he would feel after that epic event. It turns out that he didn't need to worry.

- NZ Herald

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