Cape Town - In an exclusive interview, Highlanders coach AARON MAUGER talks about the standard of refereeing in Super Rugby, the midfield talent in South Africa and one day joining the All Blacks coaching ranks.
Sport24 asked: How would you assess your first season in charge of the Highlanders?
Aaron Mauger: I’m loving coaching the Highlanders and being back in New Zealand. (Mauger signed a three-year deal with the Highlanders after being sacked by Leicester Tigers in 2017). I feel privileged to have joined the franchise. I’m in a position as the head coach where I can add to the terrific structures put in place and help grow the team and club to achieve future success. I’m working with a fantastic bunch of men. Everybody is pretty committed to what we set out to do this year as a side and we all have smiles on our faces too. As a player and then as a coach, I have been fortunate to be part of some great environments and have learnt from really good people. I reckon all those experiences have helped shape how I coach today. In terms of where we are at as a team, it’s a pretty good place to be and we are looking forward to build on that. (The Highlanders have won six of eight matches and are third in the New Zealand conference). We are really proud of the courage and composure that our guys showed through the game against the Bulls at Loftus. We thought we could probably have done more at times during the 80 minutes to put ourselves in a better position, but were able to keep our composure and pull the trigger in the last couple of minutes. It was testament to the character of the side and is something we are really pleased with as a group. We are travelling pretty well and there is plenty we are happy with throughout our game. However, if we can tidy up a few areas around our performances then we should be able to go deep into the competition. The club has become a consistent performer at the top of the competition in recent years and we look forward to the challenge of growing our game and achieving great things.
Sport24 asked: The Bulls felt hard done by owing to the second-last penalty. Your take?
Aaron Mauger: I think Glen Jackson is a top referee and he has got to make those calls in the moment. There were probably a few calls during the match which went the way of the Bulls as well and that happens in every game. I don’t really see too much out of it (the incident) to be fair (the Highlanders were awarded a penalty after Lizo Gqoboko was adjudged to have come in from the side). I thought Glen had a pretty good game and, looking around the competition, there are quality referees right across Super Rugby. (Post-match Nick Mallett berated Jackson and labelled the decision “a poor, critical one”). As a team, we try to understand the trends the referees are showing through their performances, however, the focus is more on ourselves really. We try to ensure that we are on point with our own detail and the objective is to take the referees out of the equation as much as we can... Lima Sopoaga kicked the match-winning penalty for us on the Highveld and we will certainly miss him when he links up with Wasps at the end of the season. At the moment, we are in the process of trying to find a replacement at first five-eighth (flyhalf). Lima has been an amazing servant for the club (since signing with the Highlanders from the 2011 season) and is part of the success and position the team finds itself in today near the top of the table. He has been fantastic with our young 10s and has been helping mentor and guide them through. I’m sure by the time Lima takes off, we will have that spot sorted and some of our young guys will be ready to step up and take that role. The key role of a No 10 is to control the game, so that is a big part of what we are looking for.
Sport24 asked: What have you made of the Bulls’ transformation under John Mitchell?
Aaron Mauger: There is some outstanding talent over here in South Africa. The Bulls are showing it at the moment and the Lions have shown it over the last four or five years. Those teams are prepared to back themselves and allow players to express themselves more. They play some exciting rugby. There has certainly been a good balance to the Lions over the last few years and the Bulls are starting to show some of that footie now. It’s probably a good blueprint for the other South African sides to follow. I was really impressed with the Bulls’ performance against us. I thought they were physical like always, but they were also very dynamic and explosive. We have seen a new dimension to their play under Mitchell and they seem very confident around their game. They put us under pressure with and without the ball and, as a coaching group, we were impressed with the intensity they play the game at. They are prepared to move the ball around and give it air, which is a noticeable development because it wasn’t as evident with previous Bulls sides I come up against in the past. I definitely think the Bulls are on the rise and are going to be challenging for top spot in South Africa. Another Kiwi coach I rate highly is my former team-mate, Tana Umaga. I’m not sure what’s going on behind closed doors at the Blues - it’s for them to sort out - but I’m backing Tana to stay on as head coach and am expecting the Blues to knock a few teams over towards the back-end of the season. I’m sure their time will come. Tana and I played plenty of rugby together for the All Blacks and enjoyed each other’s company through those years. We have kept in touch since our playing days and I certainly support him. I hope he does well with his coaching endeavours. The Blues may be in last place in the New Zealand conference, but I think they have actually made some big strides in the last few years and I believe Tana has done a good job since taking the helm in 2016.
Sport24 asked: What is your take on the midfield talent within South African rugby?
Aaron Mauger: In terms of South African midfield pairings that have caught my eye, I have been impressed with the centre combinations from the Bulls and the Sharks, who we face on Saturday. Both of our tour opponents in the Republic have the power game at 12 and then silky skills at 13. It’s going to be a pretty similar battle against the Sharks this weekend to what we faced against the Bulls. We expect inside centre Andre Esterhuizen to carry a lot of ball and target that inside channel, which he does pretty well. He looks to keep the ball alive and then that creates space for the players outside him. We are really expecting a pretty similar sort of challenge from set-piece and how those boys carry the ball and create space for their outsides. The role of midfielders is really influenced by how certain teams want to play and how players fit within their game plan. Some teams pick big midfielders at 12 and 13, while others go with a ball-player in one of those positions and then a power-runner in the other position. It’s all dependent upon how you want to play the game I suppose. We have obviously got our 12 distributing and playing a bit of footie at the moment and a 13 who gives us that power option. However, something we have tried to develop is our 13 also playing that 12 role. Whether Handre Pollard plays 10 or 12 for the Springboks is again dependent upon how the South Africans want to play their game. If they want to move the ball around a little bit more, then having a second distributor and an extra kicking option is pretty key. If you look at a guy like Pollard, over and above his ability to control a game, he is very physical and won’t shirk his physical responsibilities if he moves to inside centre. He is certainly a handy option they would have.
Sport24 asked: Do you hold future ambitions of being on the All Blacks coaching staff?
Aaron Mauger: Maybe one day I could (join the All Blacks management team) but not at this stage. I enjoyed my time playing for the All Blacks (Mauger earned 45 caps for his country) and have good memories of coming up against the Springboks in 10 Tests. The All Black-Springbok rivalry is certainly still as strong. The Springboks pose an altogether different challenge. It was always one of the most physical Test matches when I was playing the game and I’m sure it’s no different now for the players. From a coaching point of view, it doesn’t look any different. The Boks are still big, physical men and are very tough around set-piece and at the breakdown. Coaching at Test level would be special, but I’m really happy where I am at and am relishing leading the Highlanders. I have a very supportive and passionate support staff that is 100% behind me. We also have a great bunch of players that are really committed. I’m thoroughly enjoying my current coaching role and can’t see myself moving too far, to be fair, in the near future if all goes well here. The key is to be in a good environment where everybody is aligned and understands the structures and the working relationships that you have got in place. You can then work together and get the best out of the people and the environment. It’s something we work really hard on at the Highlanders - right from the CEO down to the last man on the roster. We are all in it together and that aids our working relationship. It helps us push each other and also allows us to enjoy the good times together. There is a pretty good balance here and, ensuring that everyone is committed to what we are doing, is certainly something we take pride in.
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