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Clarke Dermody confirms interest in replacing Tony Brown as Highlanders boss

By Alex McLeod
(Photo by Joe Allison/Getty Images)

Highlanders assistant coach Clarke Dermody says he would “openly take” the head coach role set to be vacated by outgoing boss Tony Brown next year.

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Brown’s three-year deal with the side ends this season, and chairman Peter Kean last week revealed the former All Blacks and Highlanders first-five won’t return to the head coach role that he assumed from Moana Pasifika incumbent Aaron Mauger two years ago.

Instead, Brown will resume his tenure as Brave Blossoms assistant coach under long-time coaching partner Jamie Joseph on a full-time basis as Japan narrow in on next year’s World Cup campaign in France.

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Confirmation of Brown’s imminent departure means the Highlanders are on the search for a new head coach, with Dermody being touted as a strong contender to fill the void set to be left by his current boss.

Kean told Stuff last week that Dermody “would certainly be a contender” for the soon-to-be vacant position, and the former All Blacks and Highlanders prop has since confirmed his interest in taking charge of the Dunedin-based outfit.

“Obviously my name’s been bandied about. It’s something that, I guess, I’d look forward to. It’s a club that’s given me everything,” Dermody said on Monday.

“If I could give back and make the team better, if I was the right person, I’d openly take it, but, at the moment, it’s about the Force, so it’s about making sure that we’re in a position to get into that top eight, and whatever happens after that is all good.”

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A member of the Highlanders’ coaching staff since 2014 and a two-time NPC title-winning coach with Tasman, Dermody has previous – albeit brief – experience at the helm of the Highlanders.

Last year, he took the team through to the Super Rugby Trans-Tasman final in the absence of Brown, whose Brave Blossoms commitments saw him miss that series as Japan took on the British & Irish Lions for the first time ever.

After going unbeaten against Australian opposition, the Highlanders fell short against the Blues in the final at Eden Park, but their performance in that makeshift campaign provided a glimpse of Dermody’s calibre as a head coach.

Making the final ahead of the Crusaders, who also went undefeated against Australian teams, was an achievement in itself, while some of their wins in that tournament – most notably their bonus-point victory over the Brumbies in Canberra – were significant.

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It’s for that reason that Dermody has the backing of the franchise’s playing group to succeed Brown as Highlanders boss, with No 8 Marino Mikeale-Tu’u in full support of the forwards coach becoming the next head coach.

“He’s been really good for me. I’ve been here four or five years, and he’s really shown me a few things that I’ve needed to improve on, so couldn’t give it to a better man, if it was up to me,” Mikaele-Tu’u said.

“He’s sort of done it before for a little stint when Brown went off to Japan. He pushed the boys all the way to a final, so it shows what he can do.”

Dermody was appreciative of Mikaele-Tu’u’s endorsement, saying that he’s “with the players probably more than you’re with your family at times, so it’s good when they like you as well”.

However, Dermody maintained that his focus is squarely on this Friday’s Super Rugby Pacific clash with the Western Force in Dunedin, a fixture that he said will be “season-defining” given both teams are chasing the eighth and final playoffs spot.

“We feel like we can play anyone and it’s knockout games, so it’s a matter of just getting a win over the Force this week, who are obviously direct opponents of getting there.”

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