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Highlanders lose head coach Tony Brown for entire Super Rugby Trans-Tasman campaign

By Alex McLeod
(Photo by Dianne Manson/Getty Images)

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The Highlanders have been dealt a blow leading into their Super Rugby Trans-Tasman campaign as head coach Tony Brown will depart the franchise next Thursday.


In addition to his role as head coach of the Dunedin-based franchise, Brown is also assistant coach of Japan and is set to join up with the Brave Blossoms squad ahead of their June 26 clash against the British and Irish Lions in Edinburgh.

By linking back up with long-time coaching partner and Brave Blossoms head coach Jamie Joseph, Brown will need to embark on a two-week quarantine period in Japan prior to the national side’s 14-day training camp, which begins on May 26.

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It means Brown will miss the entire Super Rugby Trans-Tasman season, which is due to start next week, with Highlanders assistant coach Clarke Dermody set to take over as head coach for upcoming competition.

“Having to head to Japan earlier than expected is disappointing particularly leaving my team before the end of the season, it’s not what anyone would have wanted,” Brown, who is contracted to the Highlanders until the end of next season, said of the premature end to his campaign.

“I will be in touch with Clarke and the other coaches on a daily basis and I am positive they will respond well to the situation.”

He added that the disruption caused by COVID-19 since the 2019 World Cup has prevented the Japanese squad from spending any time together since that tournament, meaning his presence at the training camp is vital to prepare for the Lions clash.


“Even though the Lions match has only recently been finalised it’s unfortunate that the Japanese preparation has been so limited we will need to go into an intense camp almost immediately to get organised.” 

Highlanders chief executive Roger Clark said while he is disappointed to lose Brown midway through the season, he and the franchise have the full backing of Dermody.

“No one could have predicted it would come to this, due to the pandemic the Lions tour itinerary has been completely up in the air for the better part of a year,” Clark said.

“The way it has worked out means Brownie’s international obligations suddenly overlap with his Super Rugby duties which obviously is a situation that doesn’t sit comfortably with anyone.


“However, as an organisation we know we still have his services even though he is not on the ground with us, we have every faith in Clarke and the coaching and management group to deal with the challenge.”

Losing one of the sport’s most highly-respected coaches will add an extra challenge for an inconsistent Highlanders outfit that has been ravaged by injuries and off-field dramas in a season where they finished fourth in Super Rugby Aotearoa.

By promoting Dermody, however, the Highlanders have a coach who has found success at the provincial levels of the game in New Zealand.

Primed to usurp Brown as Highlanders head coach on a full-time basis at the end of next year, Dermody co-coached the Tasman Mako to their first-ever Mitre 10 Cup title in 2019 and then helped them retain their champion status last year.

Prior to that, the three-test All Blacks prop spent four seasons with the Southland Stags between 2014 and 2017 and had one campaign with the Munakata Sanix Blues in Japan seven years ago.

The 41-year-old, under the stewardship of Joseph and Brown, was also part of the Highlanders coaching staff that delivered its maiden Super Rugby crown in 2015 after first joining the franchise in a coaching capacity the year beforehand.

To help alleviate the loss of personnel within their coaching ranks, the Highlanders have also called upon their talent development coach Kane Jury to assist Dermody throughout Super Rugby Trans-Tasman.

Jury will join a coaching panel that already features former Highlanders flanker Shane Christie and ex-British and Irish Lions midfielder Riki Flutey, as well as Dermody.

A 52-man Japan squad was named last month in preparation for the historic Lions test, which will be the two teams’ first-ever meeting and will act as a warm-up clash for the British and Irish side ahead of their eight-match tour of South Africa.

The squad will then be trimmed to 35 players once the Top League play-offs conclude on May 24, two days before the side will congregate for their training camp in Oita.

A Japan XV will then square off against the Sunwolves, the former Super Rugby side that has been revived for a one-off encounter in Shizuoka on June 12, before the squad flies out to Scotland four days later.

The Highlanders, meanwhile, will kick their Super Rugby Trans-Tasman campaign off against the Reds at Forsyth Barr Stadium in Dunedin next Friday.


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