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Tony Brown and Jason Holland are running out of time to save their seasons

By Tom Vinicombe
(Photos by Getty Images)

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Super Rugby Pacific is nearing the mid-point of the season and although it’s becoming relatively clear who the frontrunners are to take out the title (and let’s be fair, they’re the same frontrunners who many would have picked before the season had even kicked off), it’s difficult to get too excited about the latter half of the campaign.

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With eight teams set to qualify for the finals, the fact that the Highlanders and Hurricanes have underperformed to date will be largely forgotten at the tail-end of the season. After the thrashings that those two teams handed out to their Australian rivals during last year’s Trans-Tasman competition, it would take a brave man to bet against the two sides finishing off their season with significant points hauls from their last six matches.

When the finals do eventually get underway, the Highlanders certainly won’t be sitting on zero wins – as they are now.

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Yes, there’s home advantage up for grabs, but it’s still difficult to get too excited about the Crusaders holding out to beat the Highlanders and the Chiefs doing the same against the Hurricanes when these victories are going to count for almost nothing later in the year, if the teams end up squaring off again during the finals series.

The current Super Rugby Pacific season, effectively, is nothing more than a glorified pre-season.

If the underperforming teams can turn around their form in time for the finals, the formative stages of the year become irrelevant. Further, Covid means that every Tom, Dick and Harry is getting a run out on the field.

Highlanders coach Tony Brown and his Hurricanes counterpart Jason Holland might be feeling some heat at present, but not the kind of heat they would have been enduring in the competitions of old where you had to be in roughly the top 30 per cent of teams in order to have any shot at taking out a title.

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When Super Rugby was at its best, it was relatively easy to gauge whether a coach had earned another season in the hot seat but that’s now becoming increasingly difficult.

The Highlanders could be the worst-ranked New Zealand side but the fifth-best team overall and that could mean they’re actually a well-oiled outfit, but it could also mean that the standard outside of NZ simply isn’t up to scratch (as was the case during last year’s Trans-Tasman tournament). Should Tony Brown be judged on how the Highlanders perform primarily in the former half of the season, when they’re being asked to front up week-in and week-out against the best sides in the competition, or will big victories against the muddling Melbourne Rebels and an admittedly rejuvenated Waratahs save his blushes?

Aaron Mauger was let go by the Highlanders after three years in the job and in his final season with the southerners, they recorded three wins from their eight derby games that made up the Super Rugby Aotearoa competition. Currently, the Highlanders have yet to fire a shot against their NZ opposition and while they’ll be favourites to bank a win against Moana Pasifika this weekend (who are now somewhat ironically coached by Mauger), they’re still inevitably going to end up with a worse record than in Super Rugby Aotearoa 2020 against Kiwi opposition.

But New Zealand coaches rarely fall on their sword midway through a season – their fates are only decided what the dust has cleared. There’s some rationality to that approach, but in 2022’s case, the ‘big’ games have almost come and gone and assessing a team based on how they perform against the worst sides doesn’t necessarily mesh with a high-performance environment.

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Meanwhile, over in Australia, Western Force head coach Tim Sampson has already learned his team are ‘going in another direction’ next year and will bring the highly respected Simon Cron in as his replacement.

Sampson has had to build a team from the ground up, effectively starting from scratch in 2020 when the Force were brought back into Super Rugby for the AU competition. Whether or not his coaching and development of players has been up to standards is debatable but the Force progressed from fifth spot in the AU tournament in 2020 to third-place last year and given the little time the team has had to develop, expecting anything better than that after just a few years would be unrealistic – yet Sampson is out the door.

Tony Brown might not have the best cattle to work with relative to his rival coaches but neither has Sampson.

It’s a tough question to answer, of course. What standard should coaches be measured against when the resources available are so vastly different from one club to another? For a long time, it was simply expected that the Highlanders would finish bottom of the Kiwi teams due to the smaller play-base available to the southerners – but times have changed, and so too have expectations.

The Hurricanes, meanwhile, have access to some of the greatest resources in the country but have only managed to tip-up the Highlanders so far in 2022.

An extended finals series is going to hide the fact that whichever way you look at it, unless the Hurricanes and Highlanders defy the odds and score some big wins in the coming two weeks, 2022 is going to be a hugely disappointing year for the two teams that were both so impressive in the 2015 Super Rugby grand final in Wellington.

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