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Rugby’s greatest mismatch

Tom Vinicombe

There are two events that never fail to capture the attention of rugby fans across the globe. The first, of course, is the Rugby World Cup. Perhaps even more highly anticipated than the rugby-playing nations converging from around the world to decide the best of the best, however, is the quadrennial British and Irish Lions tour.

2017’s tour to New Zealand was characterised by a number of enthralling storylines, not the least of which was that in the Lions’ previous visit to the Land of the Long White Cloud, the home side whitewashed the travellers and consigned them to arguably their worst series loss of all time.

There are two events that never fail to capture the attention of rugby fans across the globe. The first, of course, is the Rugby World Cup. Perhaps even more highly anticipated than the rugby-playing nations converging from around the world to decide the best of the best, however, is the quadrennial British and Irish Lions tour.

2017’s tour to New Zealand was characterised by a number of enthralling storylines, not the least of which was that in the Lions’ previous visit to the Land of the Long White Cloud, the home side whitewashed the travellers and consigned them to arguably their worst series loss of all time.

The fact that Kiwi Warren Gatland was head coach of the Lions added to the occasion but there’s another intriguing story that’s really only emerged subsequent to the tour.

With Gatland set to take the reins once again in 2021, the Chiefs Super Rugby franchise – who, earlier this year, brought Gatland in on a four-year deal – have been forced to find a replacement coach for next season. The man who they’ve picked for the interim role is Bay of Plenty head honcho Clayton McMillan.

It’s an interesting twist in the story because McMillan was the man who almost orchestrated the Lions’ first loss of the 2017 tour.

McMillan, a former policeman, was shoulder-tapped to take command of the New Zealand Barbarians, a side comprised mostly of provincial representatives with the odd fringe Super Rugby player thrown in for good measure.

Punters on both sides of the equator wrote the Barbarians off ahead of the match. Those in the Northern Hemisphere had never heard of the likes of Josh Goodhue and Jonah Lowe while those in the south knew little more.

Come the day of the match, however, the Barbarians managed to give the Lions a massive scare – despite the fact that McMillan and his coaching team had just a week to prepare his charges to play perhaps the best-resourced team in the world.

“I remember having a couple of conversations with people at New Zealand Rugby about the potential for a Barbarians team to kick off the Lions series,” McMillan told The XV. “I was asked if that was something I might be keen on getting involved in and, of course, I said yes.

“It just lay dormant for about four to five months then, all of a sudden, the tour was announced and it was all go from there.”

Sevu Reece attempts to bring down Ross Moriarty in the NZ Barbarians v British and Irish Lions fixture. (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

McMillan gathered some of the best up-and-coming coaches in the country – the likes of former All Blacks David Hill and Roger Randle – and then set about putting together a squad.

That, as it turned out, was no easy task. The All Blacks, naturally, had first pick of all the players across New Zealand while anyone who wasn’t required for national duty was released to their Super Rugby sides for the mid-week matches with the Lions.

Effectively, that ruled out most of the top 125 players in the country. The Lions, meanwhile, had access to the best professional players from across four nations.

Still, McMillan and his coaching team knew the challenge that was ahead of them and had no concerns with the heavy odds the Barbarians were facing. Instead, they tried to capture the interest of as much of New Zealand as possible by bringing in players from the far north down to the deep south.

“It was a goal of ours, where possible, to have representation from all of our provincial unions at Mitre 10 Cup level,” McMillan said.

“I think we almost ended up achieving that; there would have been one or two teams that weren’t represented. It wasn’t through a lack of trying – it was actually quite hard trying to find the right player in the right position from the right province to actually make that happen. I think we did a bloody good job in the end.

“It was tough work because it was just a moving beast on a daily basis. I think we announced the squad about a month out from the game but the team that ran out on the field actually changed quite significantly from what was originally publicised.”

McMillan first announced the squad for the New Zealand Barbarians in late April with the match against the Lions penned for early June. The squad went through a few iterations, however, as players who were originally believed to be available for the game were called into Super Rugby squads to replace the players who’d been called into the All Blacks. 

While some of those players were still available for the Barbarians game, others were not, and McMillan and his assistants had to operate without certainty of the team they’d eventually be able to field.

In the end, the Barbarians’ match-day 23 contained players from all New Zealand’s Mitre 10 Cup provinces except for Manawatu and Southland while Wanganui, a team from NZ’s completely amateur Heartland Championship, also found representation in the form of Pete Rowe.

Wanganui legend Pete Rowe leads his side out for the 2016 Meads Cup final. (Photo by Kerry Marshall/Getty Images)

“Pete Rowe was a legend of Heartland Rugby, a legend of Wanganui and we brought him in for a specific reason,” McMillan said. “Our focus was really on creating an environment that allowed the players to feel comfortable and confident about going out there and just playing their natural game – but there were a lot of young guys in there.

“Pete was the pin-up boy for Heartland Rugby but also captained the Heartland XV three or four years in a row so he brought a lot of leadership and experience. We brought a few other old dogs in, such as Dwayne Sweeney and, certainly, it wasn’t his first picnic.

“They were instrumental in keeping the boys relaxed, focused, and making sure they got through their homework. They were seasoned professionals and really guided those young fellas and gave them the confidence to go out and express themselves. I thought it was a really well-balanced squad.”

Well-balanced as it may have been, it was still a team that was sorely lacking in top-level experience, especially compared to their counterparts, but that didn’t stop McMillan from giving his charges a license to thrill.

“It’s always tough trying to pull a team together and to play that level of opposition in a week but in a lot of ways, it was still quite easy. 

“The fact that we were representing the Barbarians, we didn’t have to give a lot of thought around what style of game we were going to play. We wanted to play traditional Barbarians rugby, give the ball a little bit of air, allow the players to pull the trigger, and express themselves.

“We had a theme: ‘It’s not the big that eat the small, it’s the fast that eat the slow’. There’s nothing bigger than the Lions –big men, big staff, big budget, full-time professionals, everything about them was big.

“But our mindset was that if you aren’t operating fast, then you’ve missed the boat. So that was us, we were never going to be the biggest fish, but we aimed to be the fastest. It fitted into Barbarians’ rugby and that whole week was framed around being fast, pulling the trigger and having fun – and that almost created an upset of epic proportions.”

Come the week of the match and another twist was added to the tale: Bryn Gatland, Warren’s son, was named to start in the crucial playmaker position.

“That was a special game and a special week really for my whole family,” the younger Gatland told The XV. “I’ve never been coached by dad – he’s never coached any of my teams, even from a young age or anything like that. We’d had plenty of discussions and chats, of course, but actually going up against him and the British and Irish Lions was pretty big for me personally.”

We had a theme: ‘It’s not the big that eat the small, it’s the fast that eat the slow’. There’s nothing bigger than the Lions – big men, big staff, big budget, full-time professionals, everything about them was big.

Clayton McMillan

Even ignoring the family connection, there are few fixtures more exciting for a rugby player than playing the Lions, but Gatland wasn’t fazed by the occasion and calmly guided his young team around the park – throwing in a few creative kicks for good measure.

“I remember the coaches saying to me that I had the license to go out and just express myself, that it was one of the few opportunities you get to just go out there and not just have to play ‘normal’ rugby.

“The weather conditions didn’t really allow for the razzley plays, but it did allow for a bit more of a flare kicking game. I was putting in a few little cross kicks and I threw up a midfield bomb from our attacking 22 which almost landed on the post and we ended up scoring a few phases later. It was a wee bit of fun.”

And while the unfancied Barbarians did put up a massive fight and led 7-3 until partway through the second half, the tourists eventually found some continuity and ground out a 13-7 victory to kick off the tour.

“Externally, people thought we were going to get walloped,” McMillan said. “Internally, right from the get-go, there was a degree of confidence within the group – but it just wasn’t meant to be.

“We got the rub of the green on a few things too. They probably should have scored a couple more tries and either through good defence or, probably, a little bit of rust and fatigue on their behalf from traveling over from the other side of the world, we managed to keep them out. 

“But I’d never take away the effort that was put in from our boys. One of the lasting memories for me from that match is that when the game finished, the players all expressed a lot of disappointment; they were really shattered that they didn’t win.

“It’s no surprise to me that a lot of them have gone on to achieve some really great things because they’re competitors – they were then and they are now. It would’ve been easy to forgive them for thinking ‘hey, we gave it a good shot but hard luck,’ but they were legitimately gutted. Us coaching staff were too, of course, but we were more proud that they really gave everything of themselves and competed with a team that has got a huge legacy and are heavyweights of the game.”

McMillan had the opportunity to meet Warren Gatland for the first time in the sheds after the match. At that stage, neither coach would have had any inkling that they would end up sharing the Chiefs head coaching role four years down the track.

“After the game, they came into the changing sheds and we chewed the fat. Obviously, a fair bit of the chat centred around Bryn playing particularly well for the Baabaas. That was really the only time I’d spoken to Gats until earlier this year.”

Bryn Gatland gets the NZ Barbarians backline humming. (Photo by Hannah Peters/Getty Images)

Bryn himself sees McMillan as an excellent pick to take over his father’s Super Rugby duties while he’s away coaching the British and Irish Lions in South Africa next year.

“I thought that was a really good choice for the Chiefs. From what I saw from Clayton, he is definitely more than capable of taking over that role for the year and I think he’ll do an awesome job. Obviously, he’s done a great job with Bay of Plenty as well in the last couple of years, getting them to where they’ve gone to. I think it’ll be good for them and good for him.”

McMillan has taken the Bay of Plenty Steamers from the Mitre 10 Cup Championship to the Premiership and will be tasked with getting the Chiefs back on the path to success after a disappointing 2020 season.

It’s an excellent opportunity for the self-confessed rugby tragic and a challenge on a completely different spectrum to what McMillan experienced with the New Zealand Barbarians – but one that he’ll certainly welcome with open arms.

Instead of having a week of prep time with his squad before entering the one-off match of a lifetime, McMillan will spend months preparing for a long Super Rugby season which will test depth as much as strategy.

While McMillan’s coaching career started long before he took the reins of the Barbarians, the experience was one that helped thrust his name into the spotlight on the back of a remarkable performance against one of the strongest, most well-resourced teams in the world – and an opportunity for which he’ll always be thankful.

“The British and Irish Lions is sort of the best thing since sliced bread and to be a part of that was an unbelievable experience. We had one week to prepare but it was a great week, one I’ll never forget.”

The New Zealand Barbarians team: Luteru Laulala (Counties Manukau), Sam Vaka (Counties Manukau), Inga Finau (Taranaki), Dwayne Sweeney (Waikato), Sevu Reece (Waikato), Bryn Gatland (North Harbour), Jack Stratton (Canterbury), Mitchell Dunshea (Canterbury), Lachlan Boshier (Taranaki), James Tucker (Waikato), Keepa Mewett (Bay of Plenty), Josh Goodhue (Northland), Oliver Jager (Canterbury), Sam Anderson-Heather (Otago), Aidan Ross (Bay of Plenty). Reserves: Andrew Makalio (Tasman), Tola Fahamokioa (Wellington), Marcel Renata (Auckland), Matt Matich (Northland), Peter Rowe (Wanganui), Richard Judd (Bay of Plenty), Jonah Lowe (Hawke’s Bay), Joe Webber (Bay of Plenty).