MMA sessions helping Highlanders find their defensive mojo

Otago Highlanders assistant coach Dave Dillon. PHOTO: LINDA ROBERTSON
Otago Highlanders assistant coach Dave Dillon. PHOTO: LINDA ROBERTSON
It is no secret the Highlanders are hoping to do things differently this year.

Head coach Clarke Dermody has been frank in saying they are looking to switch things up from the way the team played last year.

Most of that chat has been around the Highlanders’ attacking game, but that shake-up has extended to their defensive mindset, and they have added mixed martial arts sessions into their preseason training.

"We needed to improve [defensively], because if you look at the stats from last year, it wasn’t too beneficial — it didn’t look too good for us," Highlanders assistant coach Dave Dillon said.

"We’ve just gone back to the basics. One big thing that we’ve changed is how we’re training."

Adding mixed martial arts put players under pressure in new situations around contact and combat conditioning, providing something fresh for players to build foundations from.

Dillon was familiar with the concept, having previously worked alongside Wayne Smith, who introduced it during his term with the Black Ferns, but there was another man big on the idea — new Highlanders director of rugby Jamie Joseph.

Some players can take a while to adapt to changes, but Dillon was rapt to see how everyone had embraced their approach.

"I guess the positive from the preseason is everyone’s stood up," Dillon said.

"Once they got stuck into it after sort of the first session, which was sort of a punch in the face, they really rolled their sleeves up and enjoyed it, you know."

The work obviously paid off, after the Highlanders beat the Hurricanes 52-19 in a game of three thirds at Forsyth Barr Stadium on Saturday.

New wing Timoci Tavatavanawai was a standout, having "gone up another level" from last season at Moana Pasifika, and was forming a nice combination with fellow wing Jona Nareki.

The game proved the Highlanders have some depth this season. Hooker remained one of the main talking points around who would get the starting job, but Dillon said those decisions were "above my pay scale".

Either way, it was great to see players putting their hands up, creating competition for spots across the board, he said.

Lock Pari Pari Parkinson has pulled up lame with a sore back and knee following last weekend’s clash and is being monitored.

The Highlanders have a final preseason hit out against the Crusaders in Methven on Friday.