Winning is a habit, and in sport, the best teams in the world are the ones who deliver. Year on year. The Miami Heat did it this year in the NBA. In Super 15 Rugby involving teams from Australia, South Africa, New Zealand and Argentina, the Waikato Chiefs are the back-to-back champions. It’s a feat only two other teams have achieved in the history of the competition. The Waikato is a traditional rugby stronghold, but in this professional era, what is the secret of their success?
In the Peak Performance work I did a decade or more ago with colleagues at the University of Waikato, in analyzing the success factors of several of the world’s top sporting teams there was a particular word that kept on coming back at us. It wasn’t talent, or superstars, or brilliance, but family. The feeling and bonding of the team as family. The Chiefs have just elevated the idea one or two rungs higher, especially when the Maori concepts of whanau (families) and whakapapa (genealogy, family tree, the paradigm of cultural discourse) are involved.
As a device to concentrate their minds during the week of the championship final, the Chiefs coaches had a Maori pa (village) drawn on a wall at their Ruakura base. Inside the sketched village were attached photos of the players' wives, children, parents and friends - a powerful reminder of where they have come from and whom they were playing for. A copy was made and taken to their Waikato Stadium changing room on finals night. It was one of the last things they saw as they ran out onto the field and, given they were behind 16-9 at the break, they needed every advantage they could get, mental or otherwise, when they took to the pitch for the second half.
In 2011 under new coach Dave Rennie the team connected with the Maori population, culture, and history that the team’s logo invokes. These efforts included using Maori names and philosophical concepts as a framework for their various game plan elements, as well as using tribal names in their team organization.
As the 2012 season went on, the team began to include more Maori elements in their uniforms and identity. Their early season jersey had added sublimated Maori designs by the end of the year. They continued to include Maori cultural performers at the games.
In 2013 the Chiefs are continuing their connection to Maori culture. As part of their preseason training they followed a path connected to a historic Maori migration. The trip included not only exercise, but some time to connect with traditional Maori communities.
Most unexpected was the Chiefs’ development of their very own haka. While many schools have their own hakas, and the national teams have their own, this was a first at Super Rugby level. The team quietly created and practiced the haka and debuted it only after winning the 2012 Super Rugby final – and reprised it again after the 2013 win.
The US website Racialicious.com which is about the intersection of race and pop culture has a detailed piece by Caleb Borchers on The Chiefs, which this post draws directly from and goes onto discuss the issue of Native American branding and imagery in US sports, concluding there is much to learn from the New Zealand experience.
Final word goes to coach Rennie who when asked about the family journey talked about the “themeing we've done this year." It’s so refreshing to hear a coach talk themes not just tactics!