Mauger confident of filling big shoes at Highlanders

Aaron Mauger was appointed Highlanders coach on a three-year deal in August 2017. Photo: Peter...
Aaron Mauger was appointed Highlanders coach on a three-year deal in August 2017. Photo: Peter McIntosh

Much of what the Highlanders are today can be attributed to Jamie Joseph and Tony Brown, two contrasting and complementary mentors.

Fair to say, with both departed, Aaron Mauger and his new management team have big shoes to fill.

In the early years, Gordon Hunter and Tony Gilbert played their part in creating key values.

Some dark days followed, though. Joseph was not an immediate hit either - luring All Blacks Ma'a Nonu, Andrew Hore and Tony Woodcock south didn't work. But joining forces with Brown, the duo revived the spirit of the southern franchise through strategic recruitment and identity.

In many respects, they were the perfect pair. Joseph the stern forwards mentor who soften somewhat over time; Brown a man whose cheesecutter reflected his flair with the backline.

Together, they led the Highlanders to their maiden title in 2015, a staggering achievement at the time, and have now teamed up in Japan.

Replicating such success now sits with Mauger.

Brown couldn't do it alone last year. His Highlanders and had their moments but were not consistent enough and fell in the first week of the finals in Christchurch.

Scott McLeod was the original succession plan, the defence coach who guided the Highlanders to victory over the British and Irish Lions. Then the All Blacks came calling to replace Wayne Smith, forcing the Highlanders to dig deeper for a head coach.

When Mauger signed on in May last year it was to return home from the UK as assistant. Now he is head honcho, working alongside the Canterbury clique of Mark Hammett and Glenn Delaney, with Clarke Dermody overseeing the scrum.

"It's the same for the players there's actually not that many guys born and bred from the region down here," Mauger said. "The focus for us has been on the Highlander way and living those values. Once you're in this environment it's pretty contagious.

"There's a very strong identity down here and that's a credit to Jamie Joseph and Tony over the last seven years. Those guys have set a great foundation so it's a great environment to be part of."

As a player, Mauger was a silky, intelligent, lightweight by today's standards second five-eighth from Christchurch who played 45 tests from 2001-2007. After featuring in three of four pool games he was one surprisingly left out of the fateful World Cup quarterfinal loss to France in Cardiff, with Luke McAlister preferred. That marked the end of his test career.

Now 37, Mauger arrives at the Highlanders with limited head coaching experience. His only previous professional post in the hot seat ended abruptly when sacked by Leicester with one year left on his contract, despite securing the Anglo-Welsh Cup, the club's first trophy in four years.

After differences of opinion among the management team, Leicester also let go defence coach Scott Hansen and director of rugby Richard Cockerill that same season.

"Heading overseas was a good experience. Coaching in a different competition, with different players who buy into your perspective on the game. There's a lot of benefits in that. You've seen most New Zealand coaches who had stints overseas have broader perspectives and that helps with how you see the game.

"It's a privilege to do what we do and have an influence over a lot of lives in a positive ways. I enjoyed my time over there and learnt a lot from my experiences.

"We still did pretty well - we made two European semifinals and won a bit of silverware so it wasn't all doom and gloom. I just wasn't quite the right fit but I think it's all worked out for the best. I'm ready to take all those experiences and mould them into what we can control right now."

Wayne Smith, Robbie Deans and Steve Hansen have been influential in Mauger's coaching development; all prepared to share and be open with their respective learning experiences, trends and focuses.

The Highlanders, partly because they are Dunedin based, often fly under the radar.

Joseph and Brown moulded a forward pack especially around talent many other franchises didn't fancy. This, in turn, created a strong sense of unity.

Outside the new coaching team there's a familiar feel to this year's squad, with 30 players returning and eight new faces.

While the Crusaders and Hurricanes will again be favoured to challenge for the title, Mauger is aware of the modern-day expectations resting on his Highlanders.

Retaining the core, established values and balance between hard work and enjoyment, he appears confident of continuing to get the best from this once unheralded group.

"People expect the Highlanders to be there or there abouts and that's what we expect of ourselves. We expect to go deep. We believe we can really challenge the Super Rugby competition if we set ourselves up well which is what we are doing at the moment. They're ready to embrace that expectation and see where we can take it."

Mauger singles out New Zealand under-20 and Canterbury speedster Josh McKay and Counties Manukau's Tevita Nabura as two capable of pushing the outside backs.

Tasman's Shannon Frizell (six/lock) Pari Pari Parkinson (lock) have also impressed during preseason.

Wellington rookie Thomas Umaga-Jensen will miss most of the season after shoulder surgery but a rockstar backline remains. In Aaron Smith, Lima Sopoaga, Richard Buckman, Waisake Naholo, Tevita Li and Matt Faddes, Mauger sure has some talent at his disposal.

"There's going to be some good competition for places through the early stages of the season before we start to establish a side that's going to take us through."

Then, of course, there is Ben Smith's return from his four-month sabbatical; a rare pocket of conditioning. The All Blacks fullback hit personal bests in testing, with his speed in particular back where he wanted it.

"We think he's due for a big year."

Mauger will hope the same is true of the Highlanders.

- By Liam Napier 

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