OPINION: The Crusaders dont kick the ball in the last 20 minutes of a match. They just dont. The Crusaders keep on moving men and possession into space until the opposition runs out of breath and defenders. And then the earth stopped turning. In the final quarter of the match against the Highlanders, Richie Mounga kicked and kicked and kicked.
Tactically, it was not a terrible idea, but it was not the plan of the Crusaders coaches who had talked about depth and getting to the edge. Mounga abandoned the plan. Too many moves had broken down and looked confused. Mounga was no longer sure of the game that he was trying to play, and he did not appear to be sure of the men around him.
Referee Ben O’Keeffe says he got it wrong by allowing Crusaders prop Joe Moody to stay on the field against the Highlanders.
It may seem like one moment in one match, but I think it is a symptom of a wider malaise in New Zealand rugby. As more and more players and coaches disappear overseas on sabbaticals or to take up more lucrative job offers, the players left behind, the players staying loyal to their fans and teams, are forever having to make new friends.
At the Crusaders Mounga has no idea who will be coaching him from one year to the next. Scott Robertson is the ever-present avuncular figure, but the others are forever changing. In five years at the Crusaders Mounga has had to adjust to the ideas and personalities of Leon MacDonald, Andrew Goodman, Brad Mooar, Ronan OGara, Mark Jones, Scott Hansen, Tamati Ellison and doubtless one or two whom I have missed.
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It can be good to refresh the coaching staff occasionally, but surely not that often. Look what happened to Lydia Ko when she started changing coaches and caddies at the drop of her cap. Her game disintegrated. And then you look in the rearview mirror and see the coaching/ player relationship between men like Arthur Lydiard and Peter Snell. You are viewing constancy and you are viewing greatness.
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Richie Mounga lines up a shot at goal.
And it is not just at the Crusaders where Mounga has experienced this flux. After a couple of years in the All Blacks set-up, he has had to adjust to another cycle of coaches. It is a wonder he can remember everyones names. And if this is all true of Mounga, then it is even more true of Jack Goodhue, who is not only having to adjust to the ever-changing personnel, but also to a change of position.
And what position is Goodhue currently playing? He made his name as an All Black as a 13. But then with the departure of Ryan Crotty, the Crusaders turned him into a 12. It is a move that All Blacks coach Ian Foster seems to have endorsed by picking Goodhue as Moungas constant partner at 12, although the injury to Ngani Laumape may have influenced that.
Jack Goodhue flicks the ball away in a Highlander’s tackle.
Before that partnership Mounga, as a starting All Blacks 10, had played two tests with Laumape, four tests with Sonny Bill, one with Ryan Crotty and three with Anton Lienert-Brown. Mounga has not lost a test with the initial three, but his record with Lienert-Brown is played three, won one, lost two. With Goodhue it is played five, won three, drawn one, lost one. Those stats suggest he is happier with power runners at 12.
But it also helps to have familiarity. Against the Highlanders the Crusaders brought in Dallas McLeod at 12, although occasionally Goodhue would slip into the inside channel in attack. But there was clearly very little understanding in the midfield, both in attack and defence. How could there be.
Double Olympic Games gold medal winning rowers and twins, Caroline (L) and Georgina Evers-Swindell were one of New Zealand’s greatest sporting duos.
And yet New Zealand is very good at partnerships. In the case of some of their great sporting duos, familiarity has bred respect. You think of the Evers-Swindell twins in rowing who dominated the double sculls. You think of Hamish Bond and Eric Murray, surely the greatest partnership in the history of rowing.
Murray once said: “We can take anyone else’s destiny and do anything with it.”
And then there are Peter Burling and Blair Tuke, who just seem to grow stronger in each others company. In the four years leading up to the 2016 Rio Olympics, the Kiwis were unbeaten in an unprecedented 27 straight 49er regattas. Their former coach Hamish Willcox once called Tuke the most socially astute person hes ever come across and added, He has compassion with a capital C.
But you dont both have to be totally nice guys for the chemistry to work. One of the first times that John McEnroe and Peter Fleming played doubles together, Fleming went off at the umpire and then McEnroe came in over the top of him.
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John McEnroe (L) and Peter Fleming, pictured with ATP executive chairman Chris Kermode in 2016, were a leading doubles duo on the world tennis circuit.
Fleming said about McEnroe: “I had footprints up my back from him trying to climb over me to get to the umpire. We both went crazy, and we lost the match. I knew that if we were going to be a good team, I had to be the calm one.”
You dont have to be the same. Look at Steve Young and Jerry Rice in American football, or Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski. Or even Kane Williamson and Ross Taylor in cricket. Often very different personalities can come together and work beautifully in mysterious ways.
The same can be true of the player/coach relationship. Butch Harmon and Tiger Woods were worlds apart. Or what about Noeline Taurua and Laura Langman, whose achievements together in netball are phenomenal. Taurua even regards Langman as one of my daughters’.
Langmans manager Garth Gallaway called the partnership one of the great coach-player relationships in the history of New Zealand sport. He called it a unique, symbiotic relationship.
And that is surely true of all the great sporting partnerships. They are special to themselves. Barry John and Mike Gibson were very different men, but what an understanding they formed on that 71 tour of New Zealand.
Yet when I looked around Super Rugby at the weekend, I wondered where the next great partnership was coming from. Beauden Barrett and TJ Perenara are in Japan. Josh Ioane didnt start for the Highlanders. Otere Black often doesnt know who is playing 12 outside him from week-to-week or even if he is sure of his place.
The Chiefs midfield was a revolving door last season and their coach is off with the Lions this year. Peter Umaga-Jensen makes the All Blacks squad and then cant find a starting spot for the Canes at the beginning of the season.
And all of this in the midst of Covid. If there is one thing that players need right now, like all of us, it is stability. They need the familiar. They need the same voice in their ear off the pitch, and they need to stand side by side, week in and week out, with the same mate on the pitch. As Peter Fleming once said; You have to trust one another.
Right now New Zealand rugby is short of trust. Mounga is one of the great players of his generation, but even Pele couldnt have thrived with a different strike partner every week. It is a time for loyalty. It is a time for coaches to stay with a team and to stay with a player. Show some trust and some faith, and players like Mounga will return beauty both to their teams and to rugby.