Highlanders' Jamie Joseph a man on a mission
In a funny sort of way Jamie Joseph can already look at the 2013 Super Rugby season with a degree of satisfaction. Before a ball has even been kicked in anger.
Two years ago when he stepped into the job as Highlanders coach Joseph had just eight contracted players, one established All Black and a team no-one wanted to know. Including their own fans.
He now enters a season, starting against the defending champion Chiefs under the roof of Forsyth Barr Stadium on Friday night, with the three coveted off-season signings in a squad containing seven All Blacks who toured north last November, another four who have also pulled on the black jersey, and with the sort of talent that has people predicting pretty fanciful things for a group who finished ninth last year.
"That's a bit of an achievement for the organisation," says Joseph, referencing the personnel turnaround. "You take a bit of excitement out of that and ask yourself ‘why have they come in?' So you must be doing some things right, and you've just got to keep improving on the performance."
Not that Joseph is in any way satisfied. Yet. This likeable, straight-talking, one-time hard man of the game is too honest an operator to rest on any laurels at this stage. He understands too well that things are just warming up.
"I have pressure every year because we haven't done anything yet," shrugs Joseph from Wanaka where the Highlanders gathered players and families for one last bonding session. "There wouldn't be anyone with higher expectations of this franchise than myself. I took on a job two years ago that no-one wanted a bar of. It's a pretty good job now, and we've been able to turn a few things around, and get some high quality players who want to be part and parcel of it."
But Joseph knows that with the big names - Ma'a Nonu, Tony Woodcock and Brad Thorn joining current internationals Andrew Hore, Hosea Gear, Aaron Smith and Ben Smith - comes a different sort of pressure for a coach. Ask Pat Lam how that turned out for him at the Blues.
He's also not alone in the power-packed New Zealand conference as a coach in a changing landscape looking to turn around a team's identity.
Todd Blackadder at the Crusaders faces a pivotal campaign, even with a franchise who have missed the post-season just once in the last 15 years. And though Sir John Kirwan has different expectations in year one at the Blues, he too must bring positivity to a region sick and tired of a side with no passion or purpose.
They share other traits too. At the Highlanders Joseph has brought in Scott McLeod and Jon Preston to provide fresh coaching voices. Blackadder has whistled up Tabai Matson and Aaron Mauger to replace the departed (and disgruntled) Daryl Gibson. At the Blues, the coaching makeover has been extreme, with Kirwan enlisting a celebrated lineup of Sir Graham Henry, Mick Byrne and long-time collaborator Grant Doorey.
Things are more stable at the other two franchises. Dave Rennie established the template of the coaching dream team with the Chiefs' run to the title last year, while Mark Hammett over-achieved his socks off with the Hurricanes, winning back fans in their droves with committed and exciting footy.
But for Joseph, Blackadder and Kirwan there are things to prove in 2013. Joseph must show he can take a talented team to the next level; Blackadder is under the gun to deliver a title that has eluded him since he took on the job in 2009; and Kirwan must restore pride to a region badly lacking it.
All have key things to fix. Joseph's Highlanders faded badly over the second half of the last two seasons after promising starts. They need to run the complete race.
Blackadder's Crusaders have struggled to get the best out of their All Blacks and have played too many big knockout games on the road. There is talk of a style rethink for a team who may have become predictable.
The Blues are just crying out for a culture, a sense of togetherness and a cause to wrap themselves around. Kirwan sounds ready to provide his men with just that.
Joseph is already adopting an All Blacks mantra at his Highlanders. "We've got a lot of test matches in our team and we've got to share the responsibility of leadership, and get these guys to decide their own destiny," he says.
Joseph also understands big names guarantee nothing. He looks at the Blues and Crusaders last year, and compares them to the Chiefs with their smattering of All Blacks and "great coaching and great culture".
"The leadership I can provide around the outsides will be bloody important, because talent and ability doesn't necessarily mean you're going to win. What we've learnt the past two seasons is it doesn't matter how you start, you're measured on how you finish."
Kirwan exudes calm about his challenge with a young group few expect to compete with the top echelon. "People are realistic about where we're at, and hopeful," he says. "But for us it's important we understate and over-deliver."
The All Blacks legend is a fine orator and already his players are talking about the power of his messages. But he's also realistic about what constitutes success.
For that he looks no further than what Hammett achieved with his unheralded Canes in 2012. "A great season for us would be that our people are proud of us. I think the Hurricanes people were proud of their team last year, even though they didn't make the playoffs."
Kirwan's words are measured carefully. And beautifully. "I love this franchise, I want to see them be successful, so I'm here for as long as I need to be. This is a great job. I get up every morning and feel honoured to be here and just try to work as hard as I can to deliver."
Kirwan says he's leaning heavily on Henry and challenges himself to be as good as he can every single day. He also loves a slogan.
"Many cultures, one region," he declares of his squad's diverse nature. Later he tells me: "Better never stops." That might well be the mantra of all three of our coaches under the spotlight. Being best is all that really counts.
- Sunday Star Times
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