Despite presiding over a Super Rugby Final’s build up week with the Chiefs, SANZAR had the opportunity to share the views of coach Dave Rennie ahead of a match that he felt was the biggest in his career.
“I’ve been involved in a couple of NPC Finals and a few Junior World Cup Finals and that sort of thing, but yes, a Super Rugby Final certainly tops all of that,” he said.
With Rennie so quickly admitting this was a pinnacle for him, the reality is that within the group, the impending match is exactly what they had targeted at the beginning of the season.
“We set a goal to win our first Super title,” he said.
“Some people might have thought it was aiming pretty high, but as a group we sat down, had that as a goal – and then we worked out how that would look and what we would need to do to give us that opportunity. We come down to ticking a lot of boxes, growing our game, and other things.”
Rennie has been glad to prove any doubters, even inside his own camp, wrong.
“I don’t think everyone agreed back in November, but belief grows with performance, and knocking over the Crusaders and Blues early in the piece probably helped that,” he said.
Knocking over two former champions, franchises that in some New Zealand might be classed as glamour teams, but taking a more old school approach to his side’s makeup was critical for Rennie and the Chiefs.
“We’ve picked up a bunch with massive work ethic who give you a lot of graft,” he said.
“On paper we might not be as flash as other teams in this competition, but we’ve got guys who are prepared to hit a lot of rucks and make a lot of tackles, and do that graft. We selected players with that work ethic in mind, and so they work hard off the track.”
However Rennie didn’t stereotype his operation as merely workers willing to get the job done.
“We also spend a lot of time on analysis, spending time with players doing one-on-ones, we put a lot of detail into our reviews and previews,” he said.
“Our players play a real big part of that, because at the end of the day it doesn’t matter what us coaches know, it’s what the players know and understand. Our leaders have really grown, it was an area of focus for us, and given was the key reason we selected co-captains, while players behind them have grown as well.”
Rennie went on further to stress that the Chiefs worked hard off the field beyond rugby,
“We also engaged really well with our community at the beginning of the season,” he said.
“There is a perception that because we are winning we attract the crowds, but it is the way we engaged with the locals. We felt that if we played with a lot of courage and emptied out the tank, we would get a lot of support. At the end of the day it wasn’t always about whether we win or lose, but about emptying the tank and spilling a lot of blood for each other.”
“We figured people would respect that.”
But with the Chiefs clearly a team willing to put their bodies on the line, the key was ensuring that the team had more “blood to spill”, while heeding the parallels to the last time they had a build up towards a Super Rugby Final.
“That’s the challenge isn’t it?” he said.
“We had a really good review on Sunday, and we actually showed the boys that last minute or so of the Bulls game, showing all the emotions of the Bulls celebrating while all of our guys had their heads down.”
“We have six or seven players left from the game, and we asked them ‘what was the difference between that year and this year?’ and there was an acknowledgement from those survivors that beating the Hurricanes in the 2009 semi-final was achievement enough.”
Rennie warned however that they were not to stray from what had worked for them all season.
There was also indication of attention to detail, so we’ve continued to do what we do every week, continuing our one-on-ones, as well as looking at our opponents and the threats they present,” he said.
“There is also opportunity to take advantage of some weaknesses, so if we keep doing what we’ve been doing, we’ll put ourselves in the best possible position to win a title.”
“One thing you have seen with us (last week) versus other teams is that they get into finals rugby and don’t play their game, kick the ball and hope for mistakes.”
“Whereas we were still prepared to play our natural game and we like to have a crack.”
While Rennie didn’t suggest any major tactical shift, he said the outside of Mother Nature’s influence, the Chiefs knew what needed to be done, while preparing for what the Sharks would throw at them.
“The weather might dictate we have to change our plans, especially if it rains as predicted, but we don’t want to die wondering, so we need to make sure our positive and attacking mindset is on the field – as well as some smart game sense to put ourselves in the right position on the field.”
“We’ve got a pretty clear idea what we need to do to get our game going, and a pretty clear idea as to what we need to do to put them under pressure, likewise we have had a good look at them, so we are prepared to combat what they throw at us.”
“Nothing really changes, we expect them to kick a lot, but they will want to put us under pressure.”
Rennie’s advice to his troops was simple and direct.
“For us it is about giving solid ball on the set piece, hitting the tackles hard and going past the gain line to make sure we get quick ball,” he said.
“Then we can put them under pressure and dictate to them where we play on the field. Equally on their ball, we need to get off the line, slow their ball, and put them under pressure so all they are doing is running into a wall all day.”
After losing to the Crusaders late in the regular season, some felt that the Chiefs title ambitions may have been dissolving in front of them, but a no-nonsense approach to the seven-time champions in the return match in the semi-final saw the men from Waikato turn bully boys.
“In that loss to the Crusaders we got outmuscled, especially off the ball,” he said.
“The Crusaders are masters at it, they play off the ball, slow down the ball, and generally have bodies lying everywhere to disrupt you.”
“So we wanted to take that sort of thing out of the game in the Semi-Final. If they tried to block us, we would move them, if they lay on our ball, we would ruck them – and I think in the early exchanges there was a bit of push and shove, but we didn’t want to be intimidated.”
The Chiefs coach, with a reputation as a meticulous planner, already had envisaged what might happen come the match on Saturday night.
“We feel if we can get a big enough lead, they can’t come back at us,” he said.
“The Sharks at times have also seemed to drop off towards the end of games, while our boys are incredibly fit, so the key for them will be to get off to a quick start, as we’ve noticed some teams haul them back.”
“At the end, if the game is close, there are a few things we will look at, such as injecting players off the bench. It comes down to whether we feel certain players need to make an impact, while it might be a tactical thing, as we have a fair bit of analysis with this.”
“We will send key messages onto the field, in regards to areas where we could expose them, and certainly send down a lot of positivity, keep patting each other on the back and tell the players to keep doing their job.”
Rennie felt that it was “absolutely” necessary to rely on your entire squad to try and win a Super Rugby championship, and said that the playing group benefitted from home advantage in the decider.
“The nice thing about playing at home is that we would have only been able to take 24 players to Cape Town if we had played the final there, so it means we have all of our squad, including wider training group members, can be involved in the final,” he said.
“If we win the competition, it will be because of the efforts of the full 30.”
Rennie felt that if they could crack their maiden Super Rugby trophy this season, they could look to establishing themselves for the future, with the Chiefs looking at making sure their success continues.
“Certainly that is the idea!” he said.
“We believe we will have a stronger team next year, we’re already looking at filling some holes to give us depth.”
“But you talk about dynasties, you need to win championships, so we need to win on the weekend, and perform consistently year after year – and at this stage we are 80 minutes away from achieving a goal, and next year we will set some more.”
However Rennie didn’t deny that irrespective of the result in the final, the Chiefs had signalled to the rest of the competition that they were here to make a mark.
“That’s right, and we won’t be able to sneak back into town anywhere,” he said.