Lions learn from fall and de­velop bril­liant group of cubs

Welling­ton’s tal­ent boom was a long-term project,

Sunday Star-Times - - Sport - re­ports Hamish Bid­well.

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.’’

GETTY IM­AGES

Hooker Asafo Au­mua went straight into the All Blacks.

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