New Chiefs women’s coach Allan Bunting joins the team fresh from Olympic success and reveals to Rikki Swannell that high performance has to come from the heart.
With hands clasped behind his back and a slight lean towards the huddle, Allan Bunting circles the outside of his playing group, resisting the urge to have a say. He trusts his players, trusts that his leaders know what needs to be focused on at halftime. They’ve never given him and co-coach Cory Sweeney any reason to doubt it’s the wrong approach.
It became a familiar sight for any observer of the Black Ferns Sevens over the past six years. Bunting and Sweeney, quietly watching and listening as the likes of Sarah Hirini, Tyla Nathan-Wong and Ruby Tui helped guide them to win after win.
Having started as a talent scout for the Go For Gold programme when sevens became an Olympic sport, to assistant coach, head coach and co-coach, Bunting has been at the forefront of the most successful team in New Zealand sport in recent times and one of the best women’s sides in any code in the world. But after a decade on the road, leaving his family in Auckland to commute and live in Tauranga each week, Bunting is moving on. He is the new head coach of the Chiefs women for next year’s Super Rugby Aupiki competition.
Bunting is a thoughtful person and takes a holistic approach to coaching, thriving on seeing others succeed. That success isn’t necessarily measured by winning games or medals, but in having those around him being able to be their full authentic selves wherever they go. He’s a far cry from the ranting, raving stereotype many have of coaches; an image rooted in the past and rarely close to reality of professional coaches these days.
“I don't call it high performance, I call it heart performance. If you've got the hearts of your people, the high performance has no ceiling, there's a massive amount of trust in the team and there's no limits.”
It’s a coaching and personal philosophy which flourished under the guidance of Don Tricker, the softball legend who spent eight years as high performance manager at New Zealand Rugby and was Bunting’s NZR support person during the first Olympic cycle. Bunting cites Tricker and well-regarded former Ireland coach Joe Schmidt, who’s joining the Blues, as two people who’ve influenced his career.
“Joe was my coach at Bay of Plenty and knew the strengths in everybody and he knew how to bring that to life. He was really detailed, but easy to understand and a lot of the things that he taught me back then I still use today.”
A player for Bay of Plenty and the New Zealand Sevens team, Bunting’s coaching career started after stints in Hong Kong and Japan. A teacher by trade, he fell into coaching when what was initially meant to be a role “helping out” with St Pats Silverstream in Wellington became the head coach role with the First XV. Turns out he was rather good at it.
“In Wellington it’s windy and muddy and they played a forwards game, and I looked at these young, talented boys that wanted to run, so I started playing this game where we're in our own 22 you're going to run it out all over the place,” he recalls. They lost their first game and Bunting says he got a lot of stick but the boys could see what they were trying to do and they ended up winning the competition.
“That was a real cool learning for me in sticking to what you believe in or the vision of how you see the game, and things are going to go wrong but not to be scared and pull out of it.”
Joining the women’s sevens programme in 2012, Bunting was assistant coach to the team which lost the Rio Olympic final to Australia. New Zealand dominated the early years of the women’s world series before things started to come unstuck in the 2015-16 season when the rest of the world caught up. Bunting says their culture was tested and a few things unravelled when they experienced defeat. But it meant when he took over as head coach at the end of 2016, he had a very clear idea of what changes could be made and how to empower the influential players to become strong leaders.
“We did a lot of work around cultural stuff and the journey on our waka; everyone's got to jump in, you can't be half out and hanging on the side, everyone's got to be really aligned and connected through the heart, which is most important. When everyone's aligned and connected, you travel at a speed that no one else can keep up with, you can slow down when you need to, someone falls out, someone's gonna reach out and grab you and pull you back in.”
To get players on the waka and create whakawhanaungatanga, links and connections, Bunting had to show his players who he was as well.
“I can't ask you to spill yourself all over the floor if I'm not gonna do it, so I had to go away a bit and work on myself. I'd lost my dad when I was really young and when my mum passed away (during the last Olympic cycle) it brought up a lot of stuff from my past and intergenerational stuff that I had to sort out.”
Bunting speaks candidly about how he has had to dig into his past.
“It helped me like myself a bit better. Coaching and helping other people was sort of deflecting away from looking at myself, and once I came back from that I was a different human being in my coaching and my leadership; my stuff really probably helped the team a bit in how honest I was about who I was.”
It also led to changes in 2019 to help himself and ultimately the team. Sweeney became co-coach and Bunting took a few tournaments off from travelling on the world series. From the end of 2019 through the Tokyo Olympics, they lost one game.
“I needed to definitely change because I guess it was just a lifetime of...I had a lot of trauma that I went through, that I never got taught how to deal with, you know, pushing things to the side and pretending things aren't there,” he says.
It all led to Bunting becoming someone who’s not only comfortable in his own shoes, but whose renown as a coach continues to grow. He will now transfer that 10 years of knowledge and success with a team at the top of its game, to a whole new set up as he returns with the Chiefs women.
As a Bay of Plenty man and a former member of the Chiefs wider playing squad, this was a challenge Bunting really wanted to take on.
He can see huge opportunities for growth in the way the women’s game is played.
“It’s really combative and going through teams, where I think there's more opportunities to use the space and get to the outside channels. If we've got players like Portia Woodman and Ruby Tui on the outside, crowds want to see them with ball in hand and in space often, so I think there's a real opportunity in the women's game to be able to play right across the field and have a combination, a real good balance of how they play.
Having grown accustomed to having fully professional players to train every day, Bunting says Aupiki will be about being patient as the teams will have limited time together to train and prepare. But Bunting’s philosophy doesn’t change.
“There are amazing leaders in this group like Les Elder, but it’s not what I think now, it’s the shared journey of where do we want to go and how are we going to get there, what does our environment look like, how can we be tightly connected and where do we want to take the game? It's an exciting thing.”
The Black Ferns Sevens strove to “leave mana in their wake” in every aspect of their lives, a collective mantra embraced by players and coaches alike. It’s an idea, a thought, an action Allan Bunting lives every day.