Former Highlanders boss Aaron Mauger has ruled himself out of becoming Moana Pasifika head coach in their inaugural season next year.
Mauger, the former All Blacks five-eighth, was released by the Highlanders last September following a below-par three-year spell with the Dunedin-based franchise and is currently a free agent in the professional coaching market.
Of Samoan and Cook Island heritage, Mauger was one of three assistant coaches for Moana Pasifika when they debuted against the Maori All Blacks in Hamilton last December, but he has eliminated the prospect of joining the side full-time next year.
The 40-year-old told Stuff that his tenure at the Highlanders had been a stressful one and that he “was operating at levels far from my best during the last four years” as he struggled to balance family life and his coaching commitments.
It’s for that reason, he said, that he has opted to keep himself at arm’s length from putting himself in contention to join Moana Pasifika’s coaching staff in 2022.
“I’m currently in a good personal space, I needed a break from leading a top level environment,” Mauger told Stuff.
“It’s been a challenging last four years coming back from UK, losing both parents within a year of each other and working hard to settle our four kids in a new place away from family whilst trying to establish myself as head coach at the Highlanders where our performances and results were hovering below expectations.
“So, I needed a breather to reflect and assess.
“I was operating at levels far from my best during the last four years so it’s been good to take stock and personally get back on track, the break from the intensity of leading a professional team has been hugely beneficial in terms of balance, perspective and all-round fulfilment.
“I’ve enjoyed paying more attention and spending more time on the most important things in life in particular being more present as a husband and father.
“Time is one thing you can’t take back in life and this is something I’ve been able to give a lot more of in the last five months.”
Capped 46 times by the All Blacks between 2001 and 2007, Mauger has gone on to build a credible coaching portfolio since his retirement as a player in 2010.
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) April 21, 2021
Between 2013 and 2015, Mauger acted as an assistant coach to former teammate Todd Blackadder at the Crusaders.
During that time, the Crusaders finished as beaten semi-finalists in 2013 and beaten finalists in 2014, before they missed the play-offs for the first time in 14 years in Mauger’s final year with the franchise.
A move to Gallagher Premiership club Leicester Tigers followed in 2015 as Mauger took over from Matt O’Connor as head coach at Welford Road.
His first season in England ended with semi-final finishes in the Premiership and Champions Cup, while he delivered an Anglo-Welsh Cup title and another Premiership semi-final in his second season in charge, although Leicester didn’t qualify for the Champions Cup play-offs.
A brief stint as Samoa assistant coach in 2017 preceded his arrival at the Highlanders as Tony Brown’s successor in 2018, the same year he guided the southerners to their fifth straight Super Rugby quarter-final appearance.
The following year, the Highlanders scraped into the quarter-finals again after winning just six of their 16 matches, but had their campaign ended by the Crusaders in the first round of the play-offs.
Last season, Mauger led the Highlanders to just one win from six Super Rugby matches before COVID-19 hit, before coaching them to a fourth-place finish in Super Rugby Aotearoa with three wins from eight matches.
While he was let go by the Highlanders at the end of that season – ironically being replaced by Brown, who initially returned to the franchise as an assistant coach last year – Mauger’s experience would be highly valued for a new team like Moana Pasifika.
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) April 20, 2021
However, the three-time Super Rugby champion remains intent on staying in Dunedin, having taken up an advisor role for local club Kaikorai while also being involved in John McGlashan College’s rugby programme.
That hasn’t stopped him from helping out Moana Pasifika from afar, though, as he told Stuff he has been in contact with the franchise’s general manager Kevin Senio to help prepare the team ahead of their induction into a new-look Super Rugby competition.
“Key appointments of coaching and management team are absolutely critical to get the ball rolling with planning and preparation for the 2022 season,” Mauger told Stuff.
“Player recruitment will also need to begin immediately and the first few signings will be key to creating the excitement for other players to follow.
“There is a lot to be learned from other Super Rugby clubs either successful or dreadfully unsuccessful in some cases on the infant stages of building an organisation so there is plenty of information to help guide Moana through these preparation stages.
“For me, I haven’t put my name forward as a coach at this stage.”
Senio told The Breakdown on Monday that Moana Pasifika are currently putting together a shortlist of candidates to form the franchise’s coaching staff next season, while a 38-man playing roster is expected to be announced over the coming months.
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