When Steve Hansen’s contract as All Blacks head coach came to an end following the 2019 Rugby World Cup in Japan, New Zealand Rugby reached out to 26 candidates they considered viable options who could have a role to play in the post-Hansen era.
One of those candidates was Tony Brown, perhaps one of the most creative and openminded coaches operating in world rugby. Brown has spent the past three season as an assistant to Jamie Joseph with the Japanese national side and the Brave Blossoms’ attacking flair was evident in their quarter-final finish at last year’s World Cup.
During the All Blacks head coach recruitment process, Brown was shoulder-tapped by both Ian Foster and Scott Robertson to join their respective coaching teams. He turned both men down.
“During the World Cup, I had aligned myself with Scott Robertson and Ian Foster and still with Jamie if he decided to have a crack at the [All Blacks] job,” Brown told the Otago Daily Times late last year. “So in my mind, I thought whoever got the job I would be involved somewhere as an assistant coach.
“But just after the World Cup, when I got back home and had a few days to think about it, it just did not feel right to be floating between different coaching teams.”
Ultimately, Brown aligned himself with Joseph and doubled down on his commitment to Japan and will stick with the side through to the end of the 2023 World Cup in France. He also linked back up with the Highlanders in an assistant role for 2020 and has since been confirmed as the franchise’s new head coach for the next two seasons.
Speaking on Sky Sports’ The Conversation podcast, Brown has shed further light on his decision to turn down a shot at coaching the All Blacks and instead re-affirming his position with the Brave Blossoms.
“I thought I wanted to coach the All Blacks and I probably had the best possible opportunity that someone can ever have where you couldn’t fail, obviously being with Razor and Fozzie leading into their interviews,” Brown said. “But, I just felt I had a lot more to give Japan rugby and I love coaching with Jamie Joseph so coaching the Japan team with Jamie was the right decision for me. And I wanted to push the game in Japan especially and try and see what we can do with this Japanese team going forward.
“I think I just want to coach teams that are able to push rugby to another level and I don’t know if the All Blacks, for me, was that job. I think coaching with Jamie, he allows me to push the Japan team to where they’ve sort of never been before, around how they play the game.
“I know with the Highlanders, we’re going to have to do something special to knock off the Crusaders and the Blues – and the Hurricanes and the Chiefs – so we’re going to have to do things a lot differently down there as well. Those are the jobs that I love and I think those are the jobs that are going to help me become the best coach I can be.”
Brown admitted that he no longer has an end goal in mind – a far cry from most New Zealand coaches who see a position with the All Blacks as the ultimate challenge. Instead, he simply wants to keep challenging himself, improve his abilities and continue to push the envelope.
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) December 2, 2020
The 45-year-old kicked off his coaching career in Japan, assisting with the Sanyo (now Panasonic) Wild Knights. He has subsequently taken charge of the Otago provincial team, the Highlanders (for one season in 2017) and the Sunwolves.
His first stint with the Highlanders saw the New Zealand’s southernmost franchise make the quarter-finals – but Brown left the team for 2018 in order to focus more fully on preparing Japan for the home World Cup.
“I was a reluctant head coach quite openly, I suppose, a couple of years ago,” Brown said of his previous turn as head coach. “Ended up doing the job anyway with the Highlanders. I enjoyed that as well, it was a different challenge.
“Since then, I’ve been over in Japan and working with the Japanese team and also jumped in with the Sunwolves and had to do the head coach role at the Sunwolves as well. Quite enjoyed that, even though she’s a hard hard slog when you’re getting pumped every week.
“It sort of teaches you a lot about trying to create the right environment, making sure your leadership is good and trying to get performances out of guys who are potentially not quite as good as the other team’s. Learnt a lot around the head coach role by jumping into that side and feel as though I’m probably a lot more qualified than I was a couple of years ago to be able to pull it off.”
While Brown was more open to stepping into the head coach’s role for 2021, the Highlanders still looked to bring in a big name to take over from Aaron Mauger.
“We also wanted to try and attract a world-class head coach,” Brown said of the recruitment process. “We had one lined up but they pulled out and I was always going to jump into it if we couldn’t find the right person.
“There’s not a lot of world-class head coaches available – you probably know a few that haven’t got a job at the moment but we couldn’t entice them to the Highlanders so I was always willing to jump on board if we couldn’t get the right guy.”
"Not too many teams can get through a Super Rugby comp with only using three loose forwards." https://t.co/Fw3UQAM7XG
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) December 7, 2020
Now, as head coach of the Highlanders an assistant with Japan, Brown’s calendar will be crammed full of rugby throughout the year – and he wouldn’t have it any other way.
“I love coaching Japan. I actually just love coaching. I find if you spend too much time away from the game, whether it only be three or four weeks or three or four months, I think you lose your touch. I think you lose an opportunity to innovate the game.
“For me, I just love coaching rugby teams, coaching players, challenging players to do things differently on the rugby field and then ultimately trying to play the game different to everyone else. Watching at the moment, it’s all starting to become a bit similar. For me, coaching Japan and the Highlanders allows me to play around with a number of different things that hopefully can influence both environments.”
The Japanese national side, who have played no tests throughout 2020 due to the global pandemic, have been drawn in Pool D alongside England and Argentina for the 2023 Rugby World Cup.
The Highlanders, meanwhile, will kick off their 2021 Super Rugby season against the Crusaders in Dunedin.
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