'Something special': Praise for Tony Brown after epic Highlanders victory

Highlanders coach Tony Brown
Highlanders coach Tony Brown. File photo
Highlanders coach Tony Brown has received high praise for his team's "special performance" over the four-time defending champion Crusaders over the weekend.

The Crusaders looked like they were cruising towards a massive lead in the Super Rugby Aotearoa ladder, having beaten all four teams in the first half of the competition, but were shocked by a feisty Highlanders side that produced one of their greatest performances in recent memory to win 33-12 in Christchurch.

The victory, made even more impressive considering Brown chose to drop six players for breaking team protocols prior to the game, has blown the competition right back open and saw the Highlanders climb to third on the table.

Former All Black Sir John Kirwan believes a lot of the credit should be given to Brown, who took over as head coach this season and has slowly started to stamp his mark on the Dunedin franchise.

"Tony Brown has got something special," Kirwan told The Breakdown.

"When you think about the type of stuff that he does, that's a special performance. That's just one off the bag. You drop the guys for [breaching] the values of the side and then he gets the other guys up and then win.

"[The Crusaders] weren't that bad. The Highlanders were just really good. And I think ... there's a couple of parts where the other teams are looking and going 'actually if we can do that, if we can shut them down there, if we can get into those situations, we've got a sniff'. So I think the nice thing about that win was other teams will go: how did they actually do it?"

Brown managed to achieve the rare feat of beating Scott Robertson's men partly due to several inspired decisions with his team selections, with several key players including one-test All Black Josh Ioane sidelined.

The decision to start Folau Fakatava over Aaron Smith, who later came on off the bench to marshal the side at halfback, proved to be a masterstroke as the 21-year-old No 9 proved why he is considered to be Smith's heir apparent at the All Blacks.

The other player who played seemingly with a chip on his shoulder was former Crusader Billy Harmon, who was dominant for the Highlanders at openside flanker.

"I really think it was courageous to leave a successful franchise like the Crusaders – it takes a lot of courage and they've got a good thing going on down there. But I think he does suit the Highlanders' type of football," Kirwan said of Harmon's performance.

"The Highlanders have always said 'we're tough, we're the rejects ... we're just going to show everyone' and that's what he's done. He probably couldn't get the start he wanted at the Crusaders and goes down and gets the last laugh."

Kirwan isn't the first to show admiration for Brown; former All Blacks assistant coach Wayne Smith also heaped praise on the Highlanders last week, despite the team's then-last place position.

"They know how to keep the ball alive," Smith said about the Highlanders under Brown.

"Parts of the game aren't working for them, but they're beautiful to watch at times with their support play. Their players arrive thinking they're going to get an offload before they clean … I really enjoy that about them."

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