Chris Bentley: Chiefs players have paid their dues and deserve recognition
A COUPLE of weeks ago, I was a guest at a sporting lunch with All Black legend Sean Fitzpatrick as the guest speaker.
Renowned as one of the greatest players in the history of the game, he has won every honour a Kiwi could win in the game – captained a successful Test series against the British Lions and lifted the World Cup. His opinion is worth listening to.
I was fascinated as he recounted his involvement in the game as a child and I even saw some parallels as he too was known as 'fat boy' by his peers in his early teens (unfortunately, there ends the comparison – 15 years on I still respond to the name!).
However, before I get too light-hearted on this subject, it was when he started talking about the nature of the All Blacks that I was at my most enthralled.
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He made a point that rugby in the Southern Hemisphere doesn't have the financial clout compared to the game in the north.
Barring a few rugby travellers, most of the talent travels north to where the money is. This causes a problem for the All Blacks as they need to ensure that their team stays the best in the world. The pull of the jersey has to outweigh any external factors.
All professional rugby players are supreme athletes and finding the winning edge can come down to the tiniest of factors. This is a fact not lost on the All Black management.
He discussed the culture that pervaded the team. Respect is not given, it is earned. When you play for the best team in the world, reputation is of huge importance. The All Blacks have the right mix and they ensure that it remains that way.
Junior players sit at the front of the bus and only as time is spent in the All Black camp do you move to the back rows. Senior players, not management, lead the culture of the team and every year all of the past captains meet with the current captain to ensure the traditions are maintained. He went on for some time on this subject but I think you get the gist.
The team is always the best team New Zealand can put on the pitch. There is no 'building' or 'development'. This team is looking to win the next Test match, not a match in three years' time.
As this team is so good, players decide to stay as the allure of the jersey is greater than the rewards available overseas.
This all came back to me as I watched the England team battling against the South Africans on Saturday. I have to be honest, I was not best pleased with what I saw. At home, against a depleted South African side, the All Blacks would expect to win and win well. However, the England team are all singing from the hymn sheet that they are building towards the World Cup.
However, while this building is taking place, we have now dropped from the tier one World Cup seedings and will now have tougher fixtures when the pools are drawn as a result.
There are a couple of points that I feel are most applicable to our very own Exeter Chiefs.
Up front, we had the edge on the Bok forward pack in all but one area. At the line-out they were picking off our ball almost at will. This was pretty much down to a man (Tom Youngs) who had converted from the backline and started less than 10 games of Premiership rugby as a hooker.
I have no ill will against him, but keep thinking of the All Blacks mantra of picking the best man for the next Test. Surely England has players with more experience who would be better set for the challenge?
Indeed, here at Exeter Chiefs there are three English-qualified hookers each with three seasons of Premiership experience and 100s more games in the position who I believe would have done a better job.
When captain Chris Robshaw made the decision to kick for goal with less than three minutes left, I couldn't help but think he had additional worry that his hooker may not have hit the mark at a pressure line-out!
While we're on the subject of skippers and tough decisions, Test match rugby is no place to be running out with a fledgling leader. If we look at the best team in the world once again and listen to the man Fitzpatrick, the All Blacks ensure that they have a proven head at the helm.
Once again I ask, surely England has players with more experience who would be better set for the challenge?
Once again I look to Exeter Chiefs and that man Tom Hayes. He may not be the biggest, quickest or most imposing of athletes, but nobody can argue that he has led the Chiefs with aplomb since before they stood up in the Premiership.
If our national team is in need of a proven leader, there is one at the end of the M5 who is willing and, in my opinion, a damn sight more able than the current incumbent.
Finally, I was disheartened to read that our very own Matt Jess was overlooked to replace the injured Ugo Monye in the England training squad. Not only is he third in the top try scoring chart this year, he is in startling form. Those that saw the first 20 minutes at the Madejski would have witnessed the Heamor Flyer play a pivotal role in both of the Chiefs' tries as we built an unassailable lead, won our first away league game of the season and jumped back into the top six.
I have to apologise that I've not been too Chiefs-centric this week but was incensed watching our national team falter on Saturday. When you see the best team in the world picking their best players, you think that perhaps we've got it wrong. I think that the time has come to start banging the drum for some of our very own players. They've paid their dues, earned their respect and deserve recognition at the highest level.
Until the next time, stay safe and enjoy your rugby.