Sky Super Rugby Aotearoa: A history of New Zealand coaches making a Super Rugby final in their first year in charge

Chiefs coach Clayton McMillan joins a small but special group of coaches thanks to his side’s entry into the 2021 Super Rugby Aotearoa final.

Taking the helm of the franchise ahead of this season, McMillan has become the sixth New Zealand coach in Super Rugby history to lead a team to a decider in his first year in charge.

The Chiefs have turned the tables following a winless 2020 campaign, and after losing their first two of 2021, won five straight to secure a spot in their first final since 2013.

It will be no easy task this weekend up against a Crusaders side in prime position to add a fifth consecutive crown to the trophy cabinet. But if history is anything to go by, McMillan may well have a good shot at guiding the Chiefs to the promised land.

2017 – Scott Robertson, Crusaders

Defeated the Lions in final 25-17

Every dynasty has its dawn. Scott Robertson took over from Todd Blackadder as coach following an eight-year stretch where the Crusaders, in hindsight, mightily underachieved. Such fortunes took a turn as Robertson guided the red and blacks to a 14-1 record in 2017 – their best win percentage in 15 years at the time.

Based on Super Rugby’s flawed and tasteless structure up until 2019, the Lions finished top of the table without having to play a New Zealand side. It didn’t matter, as the Crusaders breezed through to the decider in Johannesburg, and upended the hosts 25-17.

Oddly the Crusaders’ lead of 22 points after 52 minutes was reduced to eight by a Lions side that was reduced to 14 men due to a sending-off.

Since, New Zealand’s most successful franchise has maintained their status as the competition’s benchmark under Robertson, with three more Super Rugby titles.

2015 – Chris Boyd, Hurricanes

Lost to the Highlanders in final 21-14

Similarly to the Crusaders under Blackadder, the Hurricanes didn’t seem to make the most of their talent under Mark Hammett from 2011 until 2014, with the likes of Beauden Barrett and TJ Perenara, midfield duo Ma’a Nonu and Conrad Smith, and Julian Savea on the books.

When Chris Boyd took the reins of the Wellington-based franchise, they blasted off.

2015 saw the Hurricanes improve by six wins to achieve a 14-2 record and finish comfortably on top of the table. Their route to the final was simple with just one victory needed before coming up against a domestic rival in the form of the Highlanders, who were peaking when it mattered in the knockout stage.

That ‘overperformance’ from the southerners continued as they claimed their first title, sealed and delivered by a Marty Banks drop goal with two minutes to play, for a 21-14 win.

The deprived Hurricanes fan base were rewarded for their patience, with a maiden title in 2016 in Boyd’s second season.

2012 – Dave Rennie, Chiefs

Defeated the Sharks in final 37-6

In 2012 under current Wallabies coach Dave Rennie, the Chiefs broke their duck. Until that point, Kiwi success felt monopolised by the Crusaders, with the Blues indulging in glimmers of triumph from time to time.

The Chiefs quickly challenged any suggestion they would again finish behind their Canterbury and Auckland-based rivals, defeating both within the first three weeks of the competition.

With 11 wins from 15 good enough for second spot in the regular season, the Chiefs toppled the Crusaders again in the semifinals to book a home final, where they demolished the Sharks by 31 points who to that point, had endured a treacherous run of travel going from Durban to Brisbane, to Cape Town and finally Hamilton.

Rennie’s stock increased two-fold with a second title just 12 months later.

2000 – Robbie Deans, Crusaders

Defeated the Brumbies in final 20-19

Like Robertson who walked a similar path after him, Robbie Deans’ storied tenure as coach of the Crusaders got off to the perfect start. Ahead of the 2000 season Deans was promoted from team manager following Wayne Smith’s appointment as head coach of the All Blacks, stewarding a team that had won two titles on the bounce.

The Crusaders unsurprisingly finished second on the ladder and eased by the Highlanders in the semifinals. Travelling to Canberra for a date with the Brumbies, Deans’ men upset the hosts – coached by Eddie Jones – thanks to a penalty kick with three minutes to play from Andrew Mehrtens, for a third consecutive title.

That match also spawned a transtasman rivalry between the two sides, which featured a trio of finals between them.

It can be argued Deans’ task of taking the red and blacks to yet another competition win was made easy with a crop of classy players and the hunger for winning already embedded in their DNA. Yet a total of five trophies in a nine-year stretch ultimately proved his pedigree as an elite rugby coach.

1996 – Graham Henry, Blues

Defeated Sharks in final 45-21

It’s almost fitting that the first edition of Super Rugby was won by a coach who was both pioneering for the New Zealand game and, arguably, our greatest ever.

As well as leading the Auckland NPC side, Graham Henry headed the Blues at the start of Sanzaar’s club competition in 1996. With legends of the game including Sean Fitzpatrick, Sir Michael Jones, Zinzan Brooke, and Jonah Lomu among many others on board, Henry had more than enough talent at his disposal to kick off the franchise’s existence in style.

Super Rugby’s first game in Palmerston North was a tight 36-28 win for the Auckland-based side over the Hurricanes, laying the platform for an eight-win three-loss season. Henry took the Blues to a semifinal win over Northern Transvaal, now known as the Bulls, to set up a decider at Eden Park against the Sharks.

Henry’s men claimed a comfortable 24-point win in front of home fans, reigning supreme in the first edition of Super 12. They would repeat as champions a year later.

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