Prodigal sons are always a good story and it was highly interesting to see a young and relatively inexperienced Chiefs outfit kick-start Warren Gatland's rugby homecoming by tipping over the Blues.
Gatland's custodianship of Wales and the British & Irish Lions was marked by two main coaching attributes – successful selection and backing of talented youngsters, often ahead of more seasoned players, plus canny game management. Both were in evidence on Friday night.
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They had no Brodie Retallick, no Kane Hames, no Luke Jacobson, no Taleni Seu, no Jesse Parete, Nathan Harris nor Liam Polwart, big cylinders in anyone's engine room, plus no Damian McKenzie. Worse, they lost All Black props Nepo Laulala and Angus Ta'avao to injury as the Blues monstered their scrum, leading 19-5 at halftime with winger Rieko Ioane scoring twice and much more like his old (young) self.
Gatland made many wonder with his starting line-up; young first-five Kaleb Trask, centres Alex Nankivell and Quinn Tupaea got the nod as did Sam Cane at No 8 while the more credentialed player in that position – Pita Gus Sowakula – watched from the bench, alongside All Blacks Aaron Cruden, Anton Lienert-Brown, Brad Weber, Atu Moli and more.
But he unleashed the cavalry at exactly the right time, sacrificing Trask, Nankivell and several others – including Cane – as the Chiefs finished over the top of the Blues with Cruden emphatically emphasising the value of an efficient, organised No 10. The Blues' Stephen Perofeta, in comparison, had a mixed night – his running and distribution can be silky but his kicking (at goal and from hand) wasn't.
The Blues made it worse with some familiar mistakes handing back possession at critical moments – or loose forward Lachlan Boshier burgling it in a fine display of doggedness and Chiefs resolve.
Gatland's return called to mind another prodigal son story – LeBron James of NBA basketball fame, who returned to the team that made him famous (the Cleveland Cavaliers) in 2016, instantly taking them to their first NBA championship.
It was bigger than that, of course. Cleveland was a national joke in the United States - derided as "the mistake on the lake", widely believed to be suffering from the "Cleveland sports curse". Their teams (the NFL's Cleveland Browns and baseball's Cleveland Indians) were disasters until James led the Cavs to that championship, the first of any professional sports franchise in the city for 52 years.
Auckland is more appropriately cast as Cleveland. The Blues are now 16 years down a no-championship road and the Warriors are entering their 25th year of lasting acquaintance with failure, one lonely Grand Final appearance aside.
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There is, however, an interesting feel to the Gatland story - and not just for prodigal reasons. Once his Lions gig is out of the way next year, he shapes as a contender for the All Blacks, particularly if Ian Foster's two-year tenure doesn't go as well as New Zealand Rugby would like.
Gatland suffers a bit on the age spectrum - he is 56 to Foster's 54 though Sir Graham Henry was 57 when he took the job and 64 when the All Blacks won the 2011 World Cup. Sir Steve Hansen was 52 and 60 when he started and finished while perhaps Gatland's sternest foe (other than Foster), Scott Robertson, is 45.
Gatland also politely declined last year when NZR seemed to be asking so many people to have a go at All Black coaching that it wouldn't have been a surprise to find they'd tickled up a few passers-by. Rugby's masters haven't always taken kindly to those who turn them down.
However, if Gatland succeeds with the Lions in South Africa next year, his credentials will be hard to beat. That said, he will also have to succeed with the Chiefs, particularly this year; the head-to-heads with Robertson's revamped Crusaders will be compulsive watching – the first in Hamilton next Saturday, the next May 30 in Christchurch.
The Chiefs' opening display, while far from perfect, suggests two things: Cruden is vital – even more so than McKenzie—and they have depth in pretty much all positions though two converted loose forwards started at lock on Friday night. The backing of youngsters (even though forced by the requirement to keep the All Blacks in cotton wool early on) is a Gatland hallmark and it will be fascinating to see how that shapes during the season.
But it won't just be results that will attract attention. Gatland's demeanour, statesmanship and ability to manage his team, plus referees and officialdom, will be on show. In Robertson, he has a rival who has already entranced much of New Zealand with his breath-of-fresh-air honesty and transparent manner as well as a healthy sense of humour.
Gatland will be tested in South Africa – the only other country where a Lions rugby tour is greeted with such intense scrutiny. He has already coped well with criticism; few will forget this newspaper's depiction of him as a clown with a red nose.
He admirably dealt with condemnation from Irish and Lions flanker Sean O'Brien who gobsmackingly contended after the drawn series that the Lions would have won 3-0 had they been "coached better" – meaning that Gatland had over-trained them.
Poor old O'Brien must have copped one on the bean that travelled through his headgear. Most Kiwis at the time felt the series should have indeed been won 3-0 – but by the All Blacks, had Beauden Barrett not missed shots at goal and if two dazzlingly confused French refs hadn't made le grand cock-up at the end of the third test.
Gatland responded well, agreeing with O'Brien that maybe the team had been a bit leg-weary in the tests while, at the same time, gently ticking him off for not showing respect to the All Blacks - effectively patting O'Brien on the head while kindly pointing him in the direction of the "former players" door.
It's going to be an interesting two years.