TOKYO: While New Zealand is justifiably lauded for producing a conveyor belt of world-class rugby players, it is the depth of its coaching that is the nation's real strength, according to former All Blacks loose forward Murray Mexted.
Seven New Zealanders, including the All Blacks' Steve Hansen, led teams at this year's World Cup and there were more than 10 acting in assistant roles for the 20 teams who started the tournament in Japan.
"When you talk about the strengths of New Zealand rugby, we straight away think about the players like the Beauden Barretts," Mexted told Reuters.
"When you say where is the depth of New Zealand rugby, everyone thinks players, but I think coaches."
Mexted said the depth of coaching was evident in the number of candidates interested in succeeding Hansen and starting preparations for the All Blacks' bid to win their fourth World Cup in 2023.
The 60-year-old is stepping down after his side play Wales in the third-place playoff on Friday and his assistant Ian Foster has said he would be keen to move into the head coaching role.
Mexted, who played 72 matches for the All Blacks from 1979-85 and set up the International Rugby Academy New Zealand (IRANZ) in 2002 to help develop coaches and players, said Foster would likely have internationally-based challengers.
Joe Schmidt, who stepped down as Ireland coach after the World Cup, and Warren Gatland, who is leaving the Wales job, would be contenders if they did not have other commitments, Mexted said.
"Jamie Joseph and Browny (Tony Brown) are performing at a really high level with the Japanese team," Mexted said of the former All Blacks who led the Brave Blossoms to their first World Cup quarter-final.
"Dave Rennie, he's great coach. They'd have to look really hard at Dave," he added of the Glasgow coach who is also being targeted for the Wallabies job, according to Australian media reports.
Mexted said Canterbury Crusaders coach Scott Robertson, who is the only confirmed challenger to Foster, could also be in contention.
"Razor has done the business with the Crusaders," Mexted said of Robertson's three successive Super Rugby titles.
"(So) there are six or seven options maybe. That's where the depth of our game is."
SPREADING THE WORD
While rugby is the national sport of New Zealand, the small number of professional coaching jobs in the country means many have to seek employment overseas.
Mexted, however, said that was only a good thing for the development of rugby worldwide and in New Zealand as they often returned home with added Intellectual Property (IP).
That IP is often spread around at coaching courses at IRANZ, which is based at Massey University's main campus in Palmerston North about 150 kilometres north of the capital Wellington.
England coach Eddie Jones, who helped mastermind their 19-7 victory over the All Blacks to reach Saturday's final against South Africa, had visited the academy about six times, Mexted said.
"One of the coaches asked him why he kept coming back and he said 'it's about professional development'," Mexted said.
"Where else in the world can you sit with 16 coaches, all who have completely different ways of thinking about the game and are from all over the world?
"Having diversity of thought challenges you and allows you to think about the game so you go 'maybe that is something I can incorporate into the way I coach', and adopting other people's methods and therefore growing their own capability.
"Rugby is evolving all the time ... and coaches need to evolve and grow as well. How do you do that? By having a diversity of thought."
(Reporting by Greg Stutchbury; Editing by Ed Osmond)