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'Hard work and consistency': How Clarke Dermody plans to turn Highlanders around

By Alex McLeod
(Photo by Hannah Peters/Getty Images)

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Following a torrid season in which they won just four out of 15 matches and went winless against Kiwi opposition, new Highlanders boss Clarke Dermody has a plan to turn his side’s fortunes around.

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Dermody was announced as the new Highlanders head coach on Tuesday, coming into the role in place of the departed Tony Brown after nine seasons as an assistant coach at the Dunedin-based franchise.

The former All Blacks, Highlanders and Southland prop’s three-year appointment comes after he has proven himself as a successful head coach at various levels of the game.

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As Tasman co-coach, Dermody led the Mako to back-to-back NPC titles in 2019 and 2020, before taking the Highlanders to the 2021 Super Rugby Trans-Tasman final in the absence of Brown, who was tied up with his commitments as Japan assistant coach.

That successful track record impressed Highlanders chief executive Roger Clark, who told media on Tuesday that Dermody’s “apprenticeship” work made it an easy decision to promote the former three-test international into his new role.

“I’ve been really proud and excited about Clarke’s growth over the last five years, and especially over the last three where we’ve seen with the hard work he’s put in at Tasman and also here, how he’s grown as a person and as a coach,” Clark said.

“Really, for me, he’s earned that right and we have every confidence that he’s going to do an outstanding job as a head coach.”

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Much of Clark’s confidence stems from the plan Dermody has in mind to lift the Highlanders out of the doldrums of this year’s inaugural Super Rugby Pacific campaign.

Despite a quarter-final appearance, which they were fortunate to attain thanks to the competition’s generous playoffs format, Dermody didn’t shy away from the fact that the Highlanders severely underperformed this season.

Wins against the Queensland Reds, Fijian Drua, Western Force and Moana Pasifika were heavily outweighed by a strong of losses that proved to be a frequent source of frustration for Brown.

That frustration was developed through defeats that could have easily been wins for the Highlanders had there been slight improvements in execution and preparation, while injuries, suspensions and inexperience also took its toll.

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With Brown now part of the Brave Blossoms set-up on a full-time basis, it’s up to Dermody to turn those close-run losses into victories.

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The 42-year-old detailed how he plans to do that as he outlined his simple, yet potentially effective, coaching philosophy.

“I sort of believe in hard work and process. Those are two big words for me, and through hard work and consistency in process through our week, I feel like we’ll get performances,” he said.

“What does that look like on the field? Strong set piece, physical in the breakdown, physical in the tackle as a building block to be able to play an exciting brand under the roof [of Forsyth Barr Stadium] when we can, but always falling back to making sure we get the initial principles of rugby right first.”

Aiding Dermody in his pursuit for success will be a new five-man coaching team, one that includes the new head coach and current skills coach Riki Flutey.

Defence coach Shane Christie won’t return, meaning three new figures will come on board for next season, with Clark revealing that a decision on who will fill those vacancies will be made over the next fortnight.

In addition to a new defence coach, a new forwards coach will need to be hired to fill the void left by Dermody in that space.

The Highlanders boss made it clear that he is keen on a forwards coach with lineout expertise, while Clark added that the coaching group will be mentored by a “kaumatua”, a role that had previously been filled by Highlanders icon Tony Gilbert.

“We really think that’s a very important role for a head coach, especially a new head coach to lean on,” Clark said of the mentoring position.

“At the end of the day, the priority for us is around making sure that Clarke has the capability and capacity in his coaching team to get the best out of the group, but also out of that playing group. That’s basically what we’re working to.”

In terms of next year’s playing contingent, Dermody said he is “about six positions off nailing our roster for next year” as he remained upbeat about the current crop of players despite this year’s wayward results.

“We were pretty open in that we weren’t happy with how we performed this year. We didn’t have consistency in our performance, but I’m really excited for the group we’ve got,” he said.

“We’ve got a lot of guys who were first, second-year Super players. If you look at our backline, how exciting it can be.

“We know we’ve got to add to that and we know we’ve got to be better, but I feel like with the nucleus of players we’ve got, we’re in for an exciting three years.”

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