It occurs only rarely. That perfect scenario–a player choosing to end their term with a team, and to ‘go out on top’. That could be a championship, gold medal and a lasting legacy. But, it only happens rarely and there was no fairy tale ending in Super Rugby semifinals played this weekend.
Sadly there was no victory celebration for several key members of the Chiefs rugby team, including their departing coach. Captain Aaron Cruden, coach Dave Rennie and senior player Tawera Kerr-Barlow all bowed out, after their side were beaten 27-13. That ended the teams attempt at a third Super Rugby title, and brought to an end the players/coaches time in Hamilton.
While it will never break the relationship each man has with the Hamilton-based team, it does mean they will not carry on to the Grand Final. So, with no fairy tale ending, they depart with dreams unfulfilled. Objectives of capping off their careers at the Chiefs halted by the conference leading Crusaders. But it will not be able to dent their achievements.
Chiefsmana! That is the colloquialism used to describe the bond that players, coaches and supporters have with their franchise. The mana is the cultural pride and respect that has been formed over 20 years. And with a role-call of legendary players and management, the three men will add theirs to that list of Kaumatua (leaders).
Departing Players From the Chiefs
As well as Cruden, Kerr-Barlow and their head coach for the last six seasons, James Lowe and veteran Hika Elliot will depart too.
There had been reports that Michael Leitch was leaving, to play for the Sunwolves. Conjecture surrounds the Japanese team captain, who may still run out for the Chiefs is Colin Cooper requires. While ‘the Beaver’ Stephen Donald has had a resurgence in energy. Playing well for his 30 plus years, the Waikato man looks like he could play another season of Super Rugby.
But any of the men departing the Chiefs can hold their heads high. All three highlighted have carved out reputations that will carry on past the moment they leave the changing room, for the very last time. Even with no fairy tale ending, they will still be remembered with reverence, and with pride.
Players Achieve Milestones, But Results Shades Honour
As well, a couple of players celebrated milestones in their Super Rugby careers this weekend, and had the same disappointment. Damian McKenzie had accumulated 50 caps for the Chiefs which is an incredible accomplishment. As shown below, a record at 22 years-young; and man who has a long career ahead.
And for Hurricanes player Dane Coles he made his return, and stepped into the exclusive club. Leading the Hurricanes from the front, the dynamo-hooker was celebrating 100 Super Rugby caps, after returning from a long period of recovery from concussion.
110 caps was a feat that he was cautious over reaching–considering his recent battle with injury. He told NZME “It will be a massive honour to join those players in reaching a milestone that I never thought I would achieve.”
The dynamic forward, who plays at times like a back, traveled with his team to Johannesburg. Unfortunately, they were unable to make a third consecutive final. So with no fairy tale ending, it was a mute achievement – something to celebrate more privately, after the defeat against the Lions 44-29.
No huge celebrations for these two men though, which is a shame when you consider their talent and contribution. And no, it should not determine their futures. Both are talented players, with years ahead of them in Super Rugby.
Going Out on Top – Who Rates?
So none of the men named above will create that fairy tale. No sentimental lap of the field, or final chance to hold the prize high above their heads. But, how many of their contemporaries have achieved that?
The most recent are the ‘Super Six’ All Blacks. The golden club, who in 2015 all celebrated their retirement from International rugby – going out on top! Richie McCaw, Dan Carter, Keven Mealamu, Tony Woodcock, Conrad Smith and Ma’a Nonu. Each had the perfect ending, and the accolades that come with it.
And they follow others who have done the same. David Kirk [1987 RWC] and Martin Johnson [2003 RWC]. Another to leave holding an Rugby World Cup, was women’s player Margaret Alphonsi. In 2014, she amassed 74 test caps and after the 2014 final victory, made the ultimate decision.
“I’ve been fortunate enough to have had a great sporting career and feel it’s the right time to retire now that we are World Champions,” said Alphonsi.
Victory in a Players Final Match is the Ultimate Compliment
Few would wish to write a better script, than to play their final game in final. With all eyes focused on the two teams, it would seem to be a fairy tale finish for some.
Brian O’Driscoll has been one to have such fortune. He played for Leinster in European Professional club rugby, and in 2014, he left as a champion. Injured early, he still participated in the final. The act of finalizing your career by leaving as Champion, can also cross codes.
One of the icons of rugby league, Mal Meninga was one of those players. His last act in playing for the Canberra Raiders, was to score the final try of the 1994 Grand Final. It was; quite literally, the fairy tale finish. And to cap it all off, on December 4, at the Stade de la Méditerranée in Béziers, Meninga captained Australia to a record 74-0 victory over a very weak French team. Scoring the final try of the game, and of his career.
There are also NFL players who have managed that feat. John Elway’s Denver Broncos defeated the Atlanta Falcons 34-19 at the Super Bowl XXXIII — giving the organization its second straight Super Bowl victory — and earned Elway MVP honors.
And while there are many more examples of men and women, for Cruden, Rennie and Kerr-Barlow, there was no fairy tale ending.
Where Are They All Going Now?
Aaron Cruden = Montpellier (reportedly a Million Euros per season)
Tawera Kerr-Barlow = La Rochelle
Dave Rennie = Glasglow Warriors
And while the three will be missed, new stars like Damian McKenzie will carry on their vision. He, along with Brodie Retallick, Anton Lienert-Brown and Nathan Harris, are the new senior leadership group. And this group can continue to hold the Chiefs teams ideals high. The relationship with their fans and with the Maori culture that Cruden and Rennie drove within the organization.
So while the fairy tale does not cap their tenure, Last Word on Rugby believe the players/coaches reputations will carry as much weight, as any Championship Cup might.
“Main photo credit”