After three years of backwards movement, Aaron Mauger has lost his job with the Highlanders. Towards the end of the season, the Highlanders had a mini-revival, but it was not enough to save his job. I have already done an article on why I thought Mauger should have been sacked, but I am a little surprised he has had the flick. In all fairness, the rugby the Highlanders played in the second half against the Chiefs and beyond looked a lot more like a Tony Brown-style than the slow, laborious, “Mauger-Ball.” One might suggest Brown took more control, therefore rendering anything that happened thereafter redundant in Mauger’s pursuit of a new deal. So, what happens now? The question now is not just who, but what. In this article, I am going to look at five options, and look at everything they would bring to the table
The one people feel to be the most obvious, sticking with the status quo in Tony Brown. Brown is universally loved by the Highlanders fans, having played 91 games for the franchise, to go along with four seasons as an assistant coach and one as the head coach. He is a popular figure, having brought the Highlanders some of their best results, including the 2015 title. His game plan involves flair and risk, something the Highlanders failed to show until their last three and a half games under Mauger. To me, it looked like Brown was having much more of an imprint on the game plan towards the season end, as we saw them put together an amazing performance to dismantle the Hurricanes to cap off the season. The players and fans love Brown, so it there any downsides? The answer is there are no obvious ones. He is reasonably inexperienced as a head coach; however, he has tasted plenty of success and in his one season as the head coach of the Highlanders, the side went 11-4 before falling in a rain-soaked Christchurch. The one major red flag would be whether Brown wants it. My gut feeling is, that Brown perhaps prefers being an assistant in a similar mould to Wayne Smith. With the complications of COVID, this feels the most likely. Appointing Brown, would also likely mean the appointment of a defence coach, but that is a story for another day.
Option two, seems very unlikely so I will keep it brief- Joe Schmidt. The Kiwi is currently unemployed following a very productive seven-year spell with the Irish national side, in which they played some of the best rugby in their history, in which they achieved some of their best results. Schmidt has recently been linked to a job at World Rugby, but if COVID was to throw a spanner into the works, then he may well take interest in a potential shift south. Under Schmidt, the rugby was reasonably structured, however, there was also a touch of class and flair that is important in the Southern Hemisphere. Schmidt has never head coached in New Zealand at the top level and has not held an assistant role since 2007. He spent time with the Bay of Plenty between 2003-2004, before a three-year stint as an assistant for the Blues. This might mean he is slightly out of touch with the New Zealand game, and having had their hands burned by a Northern Hemisphere coach in Mauger, and seeing the disaster with Warren Gatland, I would expect the Highlanders to steer clear of this.
By far the biggest wild card out of the five options, Hawke’s Bay head coach Mark Ozich presents an interesting option. After a stint as backs coach, Ozich took the head coach role in 2018. In his first year, they were a defensive mess, going 5-5 before crashing out in the semi-final, 20-19 against Otago. Last year, they were much improved. The side went 7-1-2, playing some scintillating rugby as they suffered loses to championship winner the Bay of Plenty, and premiership champion, Tasman. They also lost the Championship final to the Bay of Plenty. The brand of rugby would certainly fit in down south and if he was to get the job you would be guaranteed to see more of young Folau Fakatava, although this may happen anyway. A red mark against Ozich is his obvious inexperience, and with Tony Brown being so crucial to what the Highlanders do, an inexperienced coach who has never worked with Brown may not be the best fit. Having opted for a coach with relative inexperience in Mauger, they obviously weren’t successful, but Jamie Joseph did not have a lot of experience when appointed in 2011, so this may be a moot point. Ozich is probably still slightly too raw, so all things considered he is unlikely to be the man for the Southerners, but equally he certainly has a big coaching future.
Another man who I feel would be well received in the South is Ben Herring. Following two relatively successful years with Otago, in which he secured the Ranfurly Shield, Herring decided to take a year’s adventure travelling around America. This saw him pick up some light work with the Free Jacks in Major League Rugby, but COVID put an end to that. Whilst coaching Otago, the rugby was electric- something very similar to the rugby played under Tony and Corey Brown. The style would fit in perfectly with Brown’s model and what most Highlanders fans want to see. Currently living in Wanaka, in a recent interview with Stuff, he stated he would return to coaching if the right job offer came along. This is surely that offer. Herring played three games for the Highlanders back in 2003 and did a bit of consultancy work for them around 2015 so he already has some links to the franchise. Like Ozich, he is relatively inexperienced, but he has been around the world and is slightly older which cancels those worries out. If Brown does not want the head coaching role, then I feel this is the most plausible option.
No, your eyes are not fooling you, I feel there is a chance Jamie Joseph could make an emotional return to the Highlanders. Joseph obviously had a well-publicised stint with the franchise between 2011-2016, most memorably winning the Southerners their maiden title. Loved by players and fans alike- just like Brown, not many would have reservations around a return. Currently, he is signed as the Japan coach, but with the complications of COVID meaning, he can’t currently enter Japan, could that all fall through? Joseph works well with Brown and brings a wealth of experience. He gave the Highlanders an identity and would be well received, but should the franchise look backwards? Some might argue they have done that with Brown, but he definitely had unfinished business, after leaving in 2017. It would not be my preference to look backwards even though I rate Joseph as a coach very highly. I actually believe he should have secured the All Blacks job last year. I do also think it may be too complicated for him to get out of his Japan contract.
Ultimately, the Highlanders are faced with a decision, that they don’t have an awfully long time to make. Chances are Herring and Brown are the only two in the mix for the role, but Schmidt, Ozich, Joseph and potentially other people like Tom Donnelly could end up sticking their hands up. Whatever the case as long as Brown keeps a large involvement the Southerners a heading in the right direction. In 2021, I am expecting to see around ten new players, joining the new coach. Billy Harmon has already been announced, and the rumour is the Highlanders were scraping the bottom of the barrel with potential signings. As a devout fan, I hope this is not the case and whoever the new coach us leads us to glory!
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