Rugby: Contract clause makes Joseph unsackable at Highlanders

Highlanders coach Jamie Joseph
Highlanders coach Jamie Joseph
The Highlanders will play the final match of their disastrous season against the Rebels in Melbourne on Friday, but no matter what the result is Jamie Joseph won't be sacked.

It is understood that the Highlanders' coach negotiated a clause into his contract before agreeing to take the job at the end of 2010 that states he cannot be fired due to the on-field performance of his team.

The Dunedin-based franchise was so eager to lure the former Highlanders and All Blacks loose forward from his job coaching the Wellington ITM Cup team that the clause was accepted.

Joseph is unlikely to have the same bargaining power when he comes to negotiate his next contract, wherever that may be. His contract at the Highlanders expires at the end of next year.

One of the favourites heading into the season with new recruits such as Ma'a Nonu, Tony Woodcock and Brad Thorn on board, the Highlanders are 14th of 15 teams on the Super Rugby table and have won only three matches.

Their most recent victory was last weekend when they beat the Hurricanes 49-44 in Wellington. The visitors enjoyed a 32-13 halftime lead and while they almost let it slip in the second half the quality of their attacking play was a poignant reminder of what might have been.

Nonu and loose forward Jarrad Hoeata took no part in the match due to their bans for transgressions a week earlier against the Crusaders. The regular yellow cards incurred by Highlanders players shows they have the worst discipline of any team in the competition, another black mark against Joseph.

All Blacks midfielder Nonu, a prized signing from the Blues, has been underwhelming for the Highlanders, appearing to save his best for the national team. Returning from the June tests, he was left on the reserves bench by Joseph before his moment-of-madness tip-tackle on Crusader Tom Marshall.

Nonu, off contract at the end of the year, has been unavailable for comment but his relationship with Joseph is now thought to be frosty at best.

It's unlikely to get any easier for Joseph next year. Amidst rumours of over-training and other "old-school" techniques, a host of players are leaving the franchise, including Colin Slade, Hosea Gear, Kade Poki and Jamie Mackintosh.

The exit of loosehead prop Mackintosh for the Chiefs has angered many in the deep south as the Southland skipper is one of the few born and bred in the catchment area. Mackintosh was the Highlanders captain last season but has been on the outer since Woodcock's arrival.

Many who have the option of leaving are taking it - the exception being fullback Ben Smith, who has signed a new contract to remain at the Highlanders.

Even without his cast-iron contract, Joseph was an unlikely candidate for the axe, however. The lack of alternatives for the post has strengthened his case, even if the Highlanders have gone on a downward spiral under his command.

Eighth in his first year, the Highlanders finished ninth last year. This year the best they can hope for is 12th, providing they beat the Rebels.

Joseph's record at the Highlanders:

2011: Played 16, won 8, lost 8. Points for: 296. Points against: 343. Final position: 8th
2012: Played 16, won 9, lost 7. Points for: 359. Points against: 385. Final position: 9th
2013: Played 15, won 3, lost 12. Points for*: 337. Points against*: 458. Current position*: 14th

* One game to play

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