Lions learn from fall and develop brilliant group of cubs
Wellington’s talent boom was a long-term project,
So there’s three things. Relegation was the first. Nothing concentrates the mind quite like abject failure and Wellington had definitely endured one of those.
Losing nine straight games, during the 2014 provincial season didn’t prove – as some said at the time – that then-Lions head coach Chris Boyd had no idea what he was doing. What it exposed, actually, was that Wellington had no playing depth.
It was all very well to then say ‘let’s develop some’ but that’s not an overnight process. That’s where Earl Va’a came in.
Va’a had his critics then and he has them now. But he was appointed to succeed Boyd largely on the back of his efforts in agegroup rugby.
He took Scots College to a national title and headed the Wellington Rugby Football Union’s (WRFU) high performance programme.
Va’a might not have been the first person to spot them, or the only coach they ever had, but he was intimately involved in the development of players such as Asafo Aumua, Alex Fidow, Jackson Garden-Bachop, Wes Goosen, James Blackwell, Malo Tuitama and Thomas Umaga-Jensen.
Players who – and this is the third thing – are now beginning to flourish under the tutelage of new Lions coach Chris Gibbes.
Va’a had been close to these boys – his own son TJ is a Wellington and Hurricanes-contracted player who starred at Scots too – but it was time for a different voice and approach. Gibbes has certainly provided that, but the whole process began with that fall from grace in 2014.
‘‘It made us step back and look at what we needed to develop this group of players and the next group coming through,’’ WRFU chief executive Steve Rogers said.
Wellington were confident they had a pretty useful crop of youngsters, but realised it would take more than good kids to get out of provincial rugby’s second tier.
Club guys would need upskilling too and so the Lions began running with bigger squads and employing more intensive pre-season programmes.
Players such as loose forwards Mateaki Kafatolu and Galu Taufale, along with lock Will Mangos, are among those who’ve emerged from club football to make telling contributions in 2017.
When the Lions beat Southland 61-12 earlier this month, only fullback Trent Renata and reserve Du’Plessis Kirifi weren’t products of the Wellington club system.
Gibbes has been critical to the whole thing. He doesn’t do individuals or promote stars. Nor is he big on excuses or hard luck stories.
But what Gibbes does do is provide a simple, clear gameplan and then demand effort and a good attitude.
Take Fidow, for instance. Another of Va’a’s Scots College stars, the tighthead prop wasn’t noted for his fitness or workrate.
Yes, he could carry strongly, but only in fits and starts.
Gibbes demanded Fidow sort his diet out and the 20-year-old is suddenly 10 kilograms lighter and in the form of his life.
Fidow and Aumua have been pals since they were little and each one’s success has seemed to spur the other on, so that hasn’t hurt progress this season either.
‘‘If you talk about Asafo and Alex and Jackson Garden-Bachop, they’ve been in this programme a while. Our challenge is to keep them grounded and to keep them in Wellington and to look at that next crop of players coming through,’’ said Rogers.
The grounded bit shouldn’t be difficult. Along with captain Brad Shields and wing Julian Savea, Rogers described Aumua and Fidow as Wellington’s ‘‘stand-out role models.’’
They’re among those out working in schools and colleges, Rogers said, to ensure the Lions remain a team that young Wellingtonians aspire to.
That aspiration and connection is important, given how strictly the salary cap seems to be enforced these days.
Growing your own talent and performing well certainly gives a union’s good players reasonable incentive to stick around.
Championship side or not, Wellington’s nine wins from 10 games and 59 tries in the round-robin phase suggest they’ve gone about things quite well this season. As a couple of premiership crossover opponents would attest.
‘‘We’ve shown this year by beating Taranaki and Canterbury that, with the salary cap smoothing everything out, we’re as good as any other team out there,’’ Rogers said.
That wouldn’t have happened without the re-evaluation that relegation prompted, or the development work done by Va’a.
The trick now is to use the last two years of Gibbes’ Lions contract to make sure it doesn’t take another failure for Wellington to find the right path forward.
‘‘We’re excited about how we’ve got to where we’ve got to this year, but we’re equally excited about what’s going to happen in our next club season,’’ said Rogers.
‘‘We’ve got to go through our review process in the next couple of weeks but everything – to date – has worked as it should’ve worked. And that includes having a strong environment that people want to work in.’’
Hooker Asafo Aumua went straight into the All Blacks.