Former All Blacks coach Wayne Smith critical of SR Aotearoa rugby style

Coach Wayne Smith (then an assistant coach) during an All Blacks training session

To many, he is still the Professor. Former All Blacks coach Wayne Smith, the mind behind much of the New Zealand teams ‘cut and thrust’ for over 17 years has returned from Japan and is refreshingly critical of the Super Rugby Aotearoa rugby style.

Having been back in his native homeland for five weeks, as well as completing a mandatory 14-day isolation period, Smith has naturally observed rugby; just as he has done since his formative days in the Waikato province and later in Canterbury. A fan of the sport, of those who play in it, and an appreciation of what it takes to defy new and improving defences and attack, Smith spoke forthrightly – speaking squarely, and without ambiguity.

His analysis during a segment on SkySport television was an honest assessment of recent New Zealand (NZ) matches, by comparison to the matches he has witnessed first-hand in the Asian nations leading competition, the Japan Top League. Involved with the Kobelco Steelers, the responses to questions asked by hosts Jeff Wilson and John Kirwan have NZ rugby observers impressed by his ‘from the hip’ appraisal.

The game’s different over there, if you watch Kobe play at the moment and see Brodie Retallick – he’s down to 117 kgs because he’s got to be able to keep up with the game. He’s magnificent, he’s absolutely magnificent,” Smith says. “It’s a faster game … we [Kobe] have a real attacking style”, yet by comparison, Smith focused on how ‘ineffective’ NZ rugby appeared to him.

“Everyone’s playing pods – they’ll have three forwards off the nine for example. But we seem to have become almost robotic, going through the phases,” he says.

Former AB coach Wayne Smith critical of SR Aotearoa rugby style

In a breakdown of the issues from his point of view, his comments were frank. “How many phases does it take to score a try? I’m picking it’s probably three or four phases, probably 75 percent of your tries come from those three or four phases. I’d like to see a bit more efficiency and effectiveness off those plays.

“You get three guys coming forward off nine, for example, you hit the middle guy, the two guys on the outside are there to clean, no one’s coming forward outside them for the offload and it becomes a bit predictable. I’d like to see an option or two outside that third guy.”

It is fresh to hear from an insider, on the imperfect aspects of Super Rugby Aotearoa. A one-time Chiefs assistant, you could not fault the coach Wayne Smith for his contribution. So now, with an eye that has seen many more environments; including Italy and Japanese rugby, how Smith views the current game in the country he represented, reveals as much about the game, as it does about him.

Giving back in the form of critical analysis has to be respected. If not from his contemporaries, but more so from the grassroots level who still embrace the men’s and women’s game in their own backyards.

His comments were not just analytical. When John Kirwan reminisced on a club game he watched with ‘Smitty’ former All Blacks coach Wayne Smith laughed that “they still sell tall bottle quarts of Waikato there, that you can drink on the sideline.”

Honesty born from respect for the game at all levels

Unlike how some would be seen as mercenaries, taking their skills and an unknown amount of IP offshore, the coach Wayne Smith only wants to improve the practice of rugby. Not to better one nation over another but more so, for the betterment as a whole.

With many top players taking their talent to Japan, it is also attractive to coaches too. For Wayne Smith, the relationship is in fact decades old. Having visited, consulted, and coached there, he has seen a great improvement in the nation’s skills base, which is naturally supported by their enthusiasm. In a 2019 interview for Nippon.com Smith relates that Japanese rugby has captivated him since childhood, when Japanese player Sakata Yoshihiro, known as “Demi,” played in Canterbury, Smith’s hometown, in the 1960s. He was awed by Sakata’s plays on the field and asserts that Sakata introduced the Japanese style of rugby to New Zealand.

That experience instilled in him a profound respect for Japanese rugby.

His time playing in Italy also enlightened Smith to the varying cultural intake of rugby union. In a country more inspired by football, he will have appreciated the difference between his homeland’s full embrace of the game – and it is from that viewpoint, that Wayne Smith’s comments are directed.

Widely seen as a guru, should what he says change how NZ rugby is played? No, yet every comment has to be digested equally. Like his take on the recent proposition that a private equity company invest in, and be afforded a share of and the ability to market the All Blacks brand. Again, on this, Smith’s candid appraisal is in contrast to the usual generic answers given [too commonly]. His remark on the subject was supportive.

“A certain amount of that money must go to clubs and the community. We always ask about why doesn’t the community support us, but we have to change the question – how do we help the community? I think that’s the way to get them involved again. Most of the volunteers are my age or older now, so you need money to get the right people in the right places.”

Again, his intent is honest, straightforward, and genuine. As if he were speaking with players or a coaching symposium. Not altered to speak to media, manufactured because it is his role. The coach Wayne Smith today is clear and true.

If only more current and former coaches would bring such a breath of fresh air. 

 

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