22 Jan 2019

How an Australian coach revived the Phoenix by reconnecting it to Māori heritage

12:11 pm on 22 January 2019

When Mark Rudan accepted the job as Wellington coach in May last year, he took on an unenviable challenge; to lift a club mired in underperformance and with an uncertain future to a higher plane.

Phoenix's coach Mark Rudan.

Phoenix coach Mark Rudan Photo: PHOTOSPORT

Wellington had been languishing out of A-League finals contention over the past few seasons and had churned through three coaches in the process.

Worse still, the FFA was watching closely, with the club's licence up for review in 2020. Some pundits predicted it would not be renewed.

"For me it was about coming in and trying to change the mentality of the football club, and the level of professionalism and how people view us," Rudan said, reflecting on his plan after taking up the reins.

Unlike other A-League clubs, who benefit from bigger budgets, the 43-year-old has shaped his side's fortunes by getting things right off the field, using something quite special - traditional Māori rituals and values.

"I think that was probably one of the smartest things he [Rudan] could have done," Phoenix captain Andrew Durante said.

"This is something other A-League clubs can't do, so we have used those little things to our advantage."

Among those traditions that the side has adopted is the Hongi, which is being used by players and staff before the match.

"It's a symbol of unity between two people, it is meant to breath live into the next person," Rudan explained.

Durante said it has helped the players focus.

"We use that instead of high fives in a change room before a game. It's a really powerful thing once you embrace it and you understand why," he said.

Rudan said it did not take him long to realise how powerful and meaningful the Māori culture was to the people of Wellington.

"A lot of the culture building was about what are the New Zealand people about and in particular, what is Wellington about?" he said.

It led Rudan to embark on a journey of discovery, talking to Māori elders and locals.

"I was driving around just to get a better understanding of the place and I saw people were sitting, taking photos, overlooking the harbour," Rudan said.

"That's actually where the Phoenix got out of the water and rested and that's when I realised, wow, what a powerful story this is."

Andrew Durante

Andrew Durante. Photo: Photosport

Rudan refers to the ancient Māori story of Ngake and Whātaitai - in which the Phoenix-like spirit of two taniwha try to escape to Wellington habour.

Māori mythology states Ngake created the harbour with hard work and preparation. The other, Whātaitai, failed to prepare and ended up stranded on the hillside.

"To me, that tells me a tale about Wellington and how to never to give up, and how to use your instinct to get out of tough situations," Rudan said.

Durante said the players have enjoyed learning about New Zealand culture and applying portions of it to their preparation each week.

"It's not something that we just decided to do. It was spoken about, it was how we can a little bit of an edge on our opponents, how can we use that power and respectfulness of the culture to our advantage," he said.

"Everybody has bought into it."

Few fail to recognise the irony of it being an Australian looking from the outside in, who actively re-established a vision for the New Zealand club based on ancient, local culture.

"I saw it as a unique opportunity," Rudan said. "One club, one country, to make a difference."

The Phoenix has gone from strength to strength this season, having cemented its spot in the top six and notched up a record nine-match unbeaten run, after Sunday's draw with Melbourne Victory.

Despite his success to date, Rudan said he is not thinking about his legacy just yet.

But he is excited to be making a meaningful impact, well beyond the sporting pitch.

"The results are a by-product of everything we have tried to introduce," he said.

"The one thing I always say is we don't drop off. We have got to work harder."