New Waikato coach Andrew Strawbridge is aiming for a higher performance that goes well beyond results in order to lift Waikato toward the pointy end of Mitre 10 Cup.
They were out of the top-grade for just a single season, but for many Waikato fans, it felt like a lifetime. Now back in the Premiership division, Waikato’s latest head coach Andrew Strawbridge comes into the 2019 season hellbent on getting the side away from being mid-table battlers.
Capturing Championship silverware and advancing up into the Premiership division of New Zealand’s premier provincial competition might not be lost on Strawbridge, but the straight-talking and long-bearded coach is eying up how Waikato can improve their processes in order to be real contenders in the big time.
Of course, Strawbridge wants to lead Waikato all the way to the top of the Premiership division, but what will it take to get there?
Waikato come into 2019 with injury concerns and some players they’d banked on not being around. Luke Jacobson and Sevu Reece, two cogs of this lineup, are both unavailable due to All Blacks selection. Meanwhile, the likes of Toby Smith, Laghlan McWhannell, and big new signing Taleni Seu are all out indefinitely.
Super Rugby players have come in to bolster the side and there is no doubt that the likes of Fletcher Smith, Mitch Jacobson, and James Tucker will be crucial to success.
As assistant coach of the Chiefs, Strawbridge knows many of these men well, but he hasn’t hesitated to sit down with each of them and explain, in clear detail, exactly what Waikato want to achieve in 2019.
“There are a few guys coming from that Chiefs environment that you’ve got a relationship with but the only thing is ensuring that we really convince them of the ways we want to do things here in this environment”, Strawbridge said.
Like a lot of the other provinces, Waikato has only had many of their players contracted to Super Rugby on deck and in training since mid-July.
“It’s a moving feast really, having some of these back for just the last ten days doesn’t help preparation but many teams are in the same boat. It’s just the nature of the beast and it’s important that we have entry interviews with those guys when they come back in because they’ve been away under different regimes”.
There is an expectation that players coming back from Super Rugby are prepared to work hard towards improving as better rugby players, willing to be leaders, and to see it as opportunity rather than a step down.
One name that didn’t make the cut in 2019 is Zac Guildford. Recent reports had suggested that the former All Black was frustrated with being left out of the Waikato side despite promising form and committing to playing in the region, but Strawbridge had little to say about the matter.
“Zac tried out for the team like everybody else. It’s not a hot talking point for me, we decided to select other people”, Strawbridge said.
Eying improvement in areas outside the performances on field, Strawbridge says that a big focus is on improving aspects of high performance and building solid relationships throughout the side.
“Being consistently good on the park is greater than just the NPC team. It’s about having high performance structures off the field, really good identification of players, and if you can get that sort of stuff right there is nothing stopping us from going all the way”, Strawbridge said.
Picking the right players and having a stronger academy process is a big part of the off-field structures Strawbridge wants to help improve. The scouting needs to be spot on, and whilst Strawbridge wasn’t prepared to single out names, developing more Super Rugby caliber players combined with retaining existing ones plays its part toward the Premiership success Strawbridge envisions for Waikato.
But having those structures right in the first place can make or break the chances of success in what is a very fast-paced competition, running for just a couple of months.
So, step one, get the right processes in place. Step two, ensure that Waikato don’t find themselves sitting in the middle of the table upon their return to the Premiership tier. That means winning games consistently, not stumbling through the competition with good performances one week followed by drops in intensity the next.
Waikato will announce their Mitre 10 Cup squad on August 6th before beginning their campaign against Canterbury on August 10th at home.
Follow Michael on Twitter