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Coach conundrum; does the coach or team determine success?

By STEVE McMORRAN

AP Sports Writer

WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) The position of head coach in rugby in some ways is a throwback to another age, making the role and influence of head coaches in Super Rugby difficult to define and quantify.

Many professional sports have evolved away from the pure coaching model toward a more managerial one in which the role is of strategy and oversight of broader issues of selection and deployment of talent. The purer "coaching" roles, with responsibility for elements such as fitness and skills, fall on others.

Rugby has taken some steps toward that model in its short professional era with the advent the head coaching position and the devolution to a range of assistants responsible for elements such as the scrum, attack, defense and kicking. Specialists have responsibility for areas such as medical treatment and physiotherapy, fitness and nutrition.

The role of manager in rugby is largely logistical and also owes a great deal to the sport's amateur origins.

In New Zealand before the sport went professional in the mid-1990s, the coach was sometimes known as the assistant manager and that may be illustrative of the way in which the role has changed with the advent of professionalism.

There has at least been a rise in the cult of the coach, in which head coaches are often excessively cheered for a team's successes and blamed unfairly with its failures.

The amateur era still threw up many outstanding and famous coaches: Carwyn James with the British and Irish Lions, Ian McGeechan and Jim Telfer with Scotland and the Lions, Danie Craven in South Africa, Bob Templeton and Bob Dwyer in Australia, Jacques Fouroux in France.

Professionalism has seen the rise of the star head coach, often defined by success at a World Cup: Brian Lochore, Graham Henry and Steve Hansen with New Zealand, Kitch Christie, Jake White and Rassie Erasmus with South Africa, Dwyer and Rod McQueen with Australia, and Clive Woodward with England.

The question remains, now pertinent in Super Rugby, of whether the coach is the main architect of a team's success.

Formula One offers an analogy. Is it the driver or the car that is most important? Would a moderate driver win in a superb car and a superb driver fail in a poor one?

The Crusaders' Scott Robertson is the most successful active coach in Super Rugby, having won the tournament in each of the last three years. Until his appointment the Crusaders, who had won the tournament seven times, had gone eight years without a title.

Before taking over the Crusaders he had been successful with every team he has coached, leading New Zealand to the under-20 World Cup and Canterbury to the New Zealand provincial championship.

But in Super Rugby he coaches a Crusaders team which, with all of its players available, is of test strength. Without some of those players the Crusaders have lost already this season to the Chiefs.

The Chiefs, who haven't made the semifinals for the last two years, are now guided by British and Irish Lions coach Warren Gatland under whom they are one of only two teams unbeaten after three rounds this season. Gatland also seems to have worked a transformation.

South Africa's Stormers are unbeaten and also have a new head coach, John Dobson, who seems to have inspired a team that hadn't reached the semifinals since 2012.

He is known for his ability to build strong team structures and environments, having coached at the University of Cape Town and successfully at age group level before winning the Currie Cup with Western Province in 2017.

The other new coaches: Rob Penney with the New South Wales Waratahs, Naoyu Okubu with the Sunwolves, Ivan van Rooyen with the Lions and Sean Everitt with the Sharks have had mixed success so far but they also have teams with less abundant talent.

Whether it's the coach or the quality of players that determines success may just be indeterminable.

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Updated February 16, 2020