Tough work starts now for Waikato
With a highly inexperienced squad and new coaches appointed at short notice it could have been worse but after finishing with wins over Bay of Plenty and Taranaki ( 22- 14 in Hamilton on Saturday night) to avoid the embarrassment of relegation the planning for next season must start now.
The excuse of inexperience and rebuilding can only be sustained for so long and Waikato coaches John Walters and Carl Hoeft know it.
They moved up the pecking order from assistant coach and scrum coach respectively when Chris Gibbes quit as head coach unexpectedly earlier this year to take up a coaching job in Wales and had limited say in the recruitment of their squad.
Waikato have lost a huge amount of experience over the last couple of seasons and on Saturday night waved goodbye to another couple of key campaigners in loosehead prop Toby Smith and centre Save Tokula, who are both heading overseas to more lucrative playing contracts.
Those gaps will have to be filled but a number of promising young players are going to have to step up next year and take on the responsibility of lifting both the skill level, particularly in the area of finishing, and the consistency of the team.
Saturday night again showed those are the key ingredients missing this year as they used the wind well to build a 15-0 halftime lead that should have been greater at Waikato Stadium and then struck straight after halftime with an excellent converted try to grab a winning lead of 22-0 before hanging on in the face of a strong Taranaki comeback.
‘‘I think we fell in the trap at the 50-minute mark of protecting a lead and not continuing to play some rugby,’’ Walters said after the match.
‘‘We kicked out of our own 22 a couple of times [into the wind] when we’d asked them to look for the run options on that, but it’s been a tough season for the boys and they finished it well and I’m proud of them.’’
While Waikato scored 24 tries in 10 matches for four wins and six losses, they conceded 36.
But Walters would like to think they have put down a marker for future seasons with the heavy investment in young players this year.
‘‘It’s pretty encouraging, given the age of some of these guys. Not only have they not played a lot of rugby at this level but we’ve got four or five 19-year-olds out there and it bodes well for the future.
‘‘Those guys will be working hard in the off-season and come back even better next season, so that’s exciting.’’
They will start their planning for 2014 later this week once they have completed one-on-one season reviews with all their players.
‘‘We’ve already spent a bit of time on a bit of our stuff for next year so we’ve got to make sure that we as coaches grow from the experience as well and put together a good plan for next year.’’
Like the Chiefs they are putting a heavy emphasis in their recruitment on good character, players who are prepared to work hard and grow their game.
‘‘Luckily we’ve got a lot of guys who fit that mould here already.’’
Walters said it appeared the ITM Cup from now on was going to be about bringing young players through in order to promote them to the next level.
In addition to the youngsters blooded this year there are three national schools reps from last year – lock James Tucker and backs Anton Lienert-Brown and Regan Ware – who missed almost all the season through injury and will be available next year as well as another bunch of talented new recruits.
On the local scene all the local members of the New Zealand Schools team this season have been retained in the province, including a group from the national champion Hamilton Boys’ High squad, while the likes of star Gore-born Christ’s College firstfive Damien McKenzie and Marlborough Boys’ College tighthead prop Atu Moli have also been recruited.
‘‘Our first goal was to retain our own and then look to complement those guys in different positions from around the country and we’ve done pretty well there.
‘‘We’ve got about six head boys in the group we’ve got coming in so again we’re getting good character.’’
The coaches will start working with the young players as early as next month but will look to bring in more experienced players if necessary in some positions depending on where the gaps appear to be.
‘‘In order to really get the best growth out of these young guys we need to have some experience around them on the field to lead the way,’’ Walters said.