Rugby coaches becoming a booming NZ export


OPINION: New Zealand Rugby may soon qualify for an Export Institute award with the number of Kiwi coaches now plying their trade with top teams overseas.

The world’s top clubs and national federations will be queueing up to sign New Zealander Warren Gatland after he leaves Wales at the end of the 2019 Rugby World Cup tournament.

As it stands today, at least six of the 20 teams at the next World Cup finals in Japan will have New Zealanders as head coaches  – the All Blacks (Steve Hansen), Wales (Gatland), Ireland (Joe Schmidt), Japan (Jamie Joseph), Fiji (John McKee) and Georgia (Milton Haig).

Kiwis are also coaching in the five top overseas leagues – the English Premiership, France’s Top 14, the PRO 14 competition (featuring sides from Ireland, Wales, Scotland, Italy and South Africa), Japan’s Top League and South Africa’s Currie Cup. 

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Todd Blackadder, director of rugby at Bath, is the only New Zealander in charge of an English Premiership club. The ex-All Blacks captain, 46, is in his second season at Bath after eight years at the Crusaders.

Another ex-All Black, Pat Lam, is a premiership coach in waiting with his cash-rich Bristol club top of the Championship second tier league. Lam, 49, won a PRO 12 title with Galway-based Connacht before moving to England’s west.

Four of the 14 PRO 14 clubs have Kiwis at the helm.

Wayne Pivac, the former Auckland, Northland and Blues coach, helmed Welsh club Scarlets to the PRO 12 title last season, following Lam (Connacht) and Schmidt (Leinster) to the winners’ podium.

Pivac has been at the Llanelli-based club since 2014.

Dave Rennie – a two-time Super Rugby winner with the Chiefs – won six consecutive PRO 14 games with the Glasgow Warriors before tasting European Champions Cup defeat to English champions Exeter on Sunday (NZ Time).

Rennie’s former Chiefs assistant, longtime Tasman Makos head coach Kieran Keane, has taken Lam’s old gig in Galway, in charge of Connacht.

Namesake Kieran Crowley – the former All Blacks fullback and ex-Taranaki coach – is living la dolce vita in Italy as boss man at Benetton Treviso. Crowley, 56,  also has international head coaching experience, having taken Canada to the 2011 and 2015 World Cup finals.

The French Top 14 boasts three Kiwi head coaches.

Simon Mannix, the former Wellington, Hurricanes and All Blacks first five-eighth, has been coaching in Europe for a decade.

The 46-year-old has been head coach at Pau – where ex-All Blacks Conrad Smith, Colin Slade, Tom Taylor and Jamie Mackintosh play – since 2014 after backs coaching jobs at Racing 92 from 2007-11 and with Munster from 2012 to 2014.  Mannix has spent the best part of 20 years overseas since joining the Sale Sharks as a player in 1997.

Vern Cotter, who coached Bay of Plenty and was a successful forwards coach with the Crusaders, is in his first year as Montpellier’s boss after rebuilding Scotland during a three-year stint at Murrayfield from 2014.

There’s no language barrier for the 55-year-old. Cotter first went to France, as a player, in 1990 and was head coach of current French champions Clermont Auvergne from 2006 to 2014.

Greg Cooper, a former All Blacks fullback and ex-head coach at the Highlanders and Blues, is the director of rugby at Stade Francais after joining the Paris club last year as the backs and attack coach.

The 52-year-old Otago stalwart also had seven years coaching experience in Japan before heading to Europe.

He has former Otago and Canterbury assistant coach John Haggart at his side in Paris with Australian-born former All Blacks, Wallabies and Crusaders trainer Ashley Jones also on the backroom staff.

Over in Japan, former Crusaders and Wallabies coach Robbie Deans isn’t short of compatriot colleagues if he wants a nostalgic yarn about the state of New Zealand rugby.

Four of the 14 Top League teams are coached by Kiwis.

Deans, 58, has won three titles in four years with the Sanyo Wild Knights after coaching Australia from 2008 to 2013.

His former Canterbury teammate Rob Penney, 53, is in charge at the NTT Shining Arcs.  Penney, one of the unluckiest coaches never to get a New Zealand Super Rugby team after taking Canterbury to four successive NPC titles, earlier spent two years in Limerick as head coach of Irish province Munster.

Peter Russell, the former Hawke’s Bay Magpies head coach and a one-time Highlanders assistant, coaches the NEC Green Rockets.

It’s not his first overseas assignment – he had two years in the English Premiership with the Newcastle Falcons.

Earl Va’a finished a two-year stint as Wellington’s head coach in 2016. The 45-year-old, who represented Samoa at rugby league and rugby union, took over this term as chief clipboard carrier at the Coca Cola Red Sparks.

Toss in Joseph (set to take over the Sunwolves) and Daryl Gibson (Waratahs) in Super Rugby and the peripatetic ex-All Black coach John Mitchell (with the Blue Bulls in South Africa’s Currie Cup) and it’s clear Kiwi coaches are in demand around the globe.

It’s not only head honchos being lured offshore. Countless New Zealanders are working as assistant coaches around the world – most notably former Highlanders head coach Tony Brown (with Joseph in Japan) and former All Black backrower Jonno Gibbes (forwards coach at French champions Clermont).

Scott Robertson and Leon MacDonald must also be in overseas clubs’ sights after adding a Crusaders Super Rugby title to their rugby CVs, and who knows where Colin Cooper – one of New Zealand’s most experienced coaches – may head after his latest challenge with the Chiefs.

It isn’t all one-way traffic – some coaches do return, most notably the All Blacks’ brains trust triumvirate of Steve Hansen, Wayne Smith and Steve Hansen.

New Highlanders supremo Aaron Mauger and assistant Mark Hammett are back after ill-starred head coach stays at the Leicester Tigers and Cardiff Blues respectively, while Chiefs assistant-in-waiting Tabai Matson came home for family reasons after a year as Bath’s head coach, under Blackadder.

But, think about how much recent rugby intellectual property departed with Rennie, Blackadder, Brown, Joseph and Keane? 

In many ways, the Kiwi coaching diaspora is even more worrying than the annual exodus of end-of-career All Blacks and second-tier players.

There’s no easy solution. With just five Super Rugby head coaches jobs here and a handful of All Blacks positions, New Zealand Rugby can’t expect to keep every ambitious coach happy. 


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