Dermody rates season a success

Clarke Dermody hopes the Highlanders can keep developing next year. PHOTO: PETER MCINTOSH
Clarke Dermody hopes the Highlanders can keep developing next year. PHOTO: PETER MCINTOSH
Clarke Dermody has labelled the Highlanders season a success but he knows the challenge is to bridge the gap to the elite teams in Super Rugby.

Dermody and his staff are knee-deep in player reviews after their season ended with a 32-16 loss to the Brumbies in the quarterfinals.

Finishing sixth (up from ninth) and winning six games (up from five) represented some progress, he felt, especially as the Highlanders lost so much experience in the offseason.

"I think it’s been a successful year on that note," Dermody said yesterday.

"We’re better than we were last year, not just where we finished on the table but I think we played better rugby.

"When we got it right, our game was good enough to beat some teams, but not quite good enough to beat the best teams, so that’s now our challenge.

"I guess we need to review hard, come back and try to knock over those better teams."

The Highlanders invested heavily in youth, mostly homegrown, this year.

Those greenhorns had developed as well as could have been expected, their coach said.

"They were willing, they gave it everything they had, and they’re better rugby players just for what they’ve been through and the experience they’ve gained.

"They know about the constant preparation required, and what it is to be a professional rugby player."

While some lament the Highlanders’ inability to recruit star players, that has never really been the approach of any New Zealand team in Super Rugby as the top-line players do not tend to switch clubs.

Dermody will still have a couple of holes in his 2025 squad to fill from the outside but is adamant the path forward is through developing the young men the Highlanders have in the system.

"You take the Chiefs or the Hurricanes. Whereas we are giving out debuts every other week, they’re giving away 50 games. That’s the difference of three years.

"That’s experience, and you can see after one year how much our boys have grown.

"It’s sticking with the guys we’ve got, and through experience and what we put in place, making them better."

All players in the Highlanders squad, apart from some of those departing who had earlier exit interviews, get one-on-one time with the coaching staff this week to analyse the season from a rugby point of view.

They also meet members of the management team to focus on the club’s environment and culture, and Dermody is seeing some trends emerging.

"I feel like the team was a lot more connected this year as a group, and more connected to the club.

"Whether that was because we had more local guys — the balance was probably a bit more homegrown, which helped. I think there was a bit more commitment from everyone in the club to make the effort to connect a bit more, which helps the environment a lot.

"You’ve got to feel like you can contribute and you are heard, and it’s a place you can come to get better, and it’s a place you enjoy.

"We have some pretty tough days in here. You’ve still got to be able to enjoy it, and look forward to coming back."

Dermody has been in the Highlanders’ coaching system for 11 years and is completing his second as the head coach.

He felt he had learnt a lot about his own role, and was most proud of the efforts the coaching staff made to turn the season around after the Highlanders slumped to five straight losses with a shocking 31-0 defeat to the Reds.

Having innovative assistant Kenny Lynn and new trainer James Holden on board made a big difference, and he had enjoyed working with the new head of rugby, former Highlanders and Japan coach Jamie Joseph.

"Jamie’s a pretty straight-up guy. He’s not shy to offer advice, and it’s whether you’re prepared to take it on board. Why wouldn’t you? Look at the experiences he’s had.

"After the Reds game, he talked a lot around his early times with the Highlanders, and some of the mistake he made, and that helped us immensely.

"He didn’t have a lot to do with the rugby this year. It was more the organisational side of things, how the week is structured, leadership — and he was hugely helpful."

Dermody, who has a year left to run on his contract, was unable to say much about his coaching staff’s future but thought all his men had done a fine job in 2024.

He is looking forward to eventually getting a break and spending some more time with family at weekends.