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Free spirit

Jeff Wilson

There are certain individuals who just have an innate understanding of the game – when they play it or coach it – and that’s Tony Brown in a nutshell. 

Brownie, in his first season at the Highlanders as a head coach, can understand all things rugby incredibly quickly and he can see opportunities. 

I saw that right from when I started playing with him in Dunedin. It was a different time at Otago and the Highlanders, but with coaches such as Gordy Hunter and Tony Gilbert, it was a highly creative one. 

Like those two coaching legends of the south, Brownie always had vision.

When you talk about being innovative… the best way I can describe it is that there’s always a lot more detail to it than you would expect on the outside looking in. That’s why I compare him to Wayne Smith. He’s very much from that mould.

Former All Blacks coach Wayne Smith is widely regarded as one of the most astute operators in the business. (Photo by Phil Walter/Getty Images)

Brownie creates opportunities because it’s almost like he’s playing chess out there. He’s moving pieces of the puzzle. So when he comes up with these fantastic moves which we’ve all seen over his coaching career, he’s seen something and then he’s built a picture around it. I’ll touch on this more in a bit.

The other great thing about Brownie is the fact that he’s incredibly connected with his players and I think he’s managed to take that environment we had as players in Dunedin and recreated it wherever he’s gone. He’s been able to give the players that confidence and belief. 

When you talk about being innovative… the best way I can describe it is that there’s always a lot more detail to it than you would expect on the outside looking in. That’s why I compare him to Wayne Smith. He’s very much from that mould.

They use the phrase ‘pull the trigger’ all the time – don’t be afraid to have a go. Trust that instinct. I’d say too that he arms them with the necessary skills to go out and have a chance of being successful.

I’ve never been coached by him, but I would imagine that he would be honest when you haven’t quite done it right. He would certainly let you know if you have missed an opportunity because you haven’t been switched on or engaged and prepared properly.

As I’ve mentioned, the reason he’s successful is because he empowers his players but at the same time he’s honest with them. He was never one to hold back when he was a player. Everyone who saw him play or who played with him admired the way he played the game. He was always up for the challenge. 

There is method to the madness which is important in the game now because it has become predictable in many ways via the way it’s coached and played. There are systems followed all over the world and rarely do you see true variations.

You think about what he’s done with Japan and his career there also opened his eyes to different ways of playing and there is no doubt that the skill of any coach is to find new ways of being successful.

Japan made a quarter-final of a World Cup in 2019, a remarkable achievement. He was a big part of that because they play the game a little differently to everyone else.

Japan’s high-tempo play was one of the highlights of the 2019 Rugby World Cup. (Photo by PA)

Let’s touch on that famous innovation. Remember Lima Sopoaga’s backwards kick for the Highlanders against the Hurricanes in Wellington a couple of years ago? Lima later said it was done to counter the Hurricanes’ line speed – that was an extreme one but it’s not done without careful thought and preparation. It also worked extremely well and almost led to a try.

Lima said he understood the risks, not least a shoulder in the back from the hard-charging Brad Shields. He said it was a hard thing to execute but it almost worked to perfection. I reckon the great thing is that Brownie also recognises there must be an element of entertainment in the game. There’s no reason why you shouldn’t have a crack.

So all up I think he’s the perfect guy to take the reins in Dunedin right now. 

He was initially reluctant to take the top job but they didn’t find a better option and to be honest it probably would have been near impossible to find a better option given where the team are right now. He admitted he was part of the process of trying to find someone. In the end he said ‘I’m prepared to do the job’. 

In some ways that would be a little easier in Dunedin; that role of head coach versus say Leon here in Auckland at the Blues, or the Crusaders. There’s not the scrutiny you have in Auckland or Christchurch. You’re a bit removed down there and he has a young coaching group with him. I think it’s going to be a collaborative approach. They’re growing as a group.

He was initially reluctant to take the top job but they didn’t find a better option and to be honest it probably would have been near impossible to find a better option given where the team are right now.

Another great thing about Brownie is that when you talk to him or interview him, he’s honest and to the point. He knows everyone at home has watched the same game that he’s watched and he’s loyal to the cause. He left no one in doubt about what he thought after the Crusaders beat them in round one of Super Rugby Aotearoa recently. All of that leads to the fact that his players want to play for him. 

I’ve put him in the same bracket as the great Wayne Smith and I have no doubt he belongs there because what he has achieved already is significant. Obviously, the fact that both Ian Foster and Scott Robertson wanted him to be involved with their All Black coaching group is testament to the fact that they know his value and where he’s coming from.

He was part of a Ranfurly Shield win with Otago, he’s obviously been successful with Japan, he was there when the Highlanders won a Super Rugby title… he has created history and he did it with not necessarily the best team in the world. He’s had multiple success with the underdog and that’s not easy to do.

I played quite a few tests with Brownie and he could have played more than his 18 had he played them in a different era. What a difficult situation to be in when you have Andrew Mehrtens, Carlos Spencer and Tony Brown, and all very, very different players. 

It was a difficult one for Brownie but playing with him at Otago and the Highlanders was fantastic. We’d have conversations about game plans and he’d make a call and I’d never have any doubts that it was the right one to go with. 

The ‘Party at Tony Brown’s place’ Super Rugby final in ’99 between the Highlanders and Crusaders was an easy way to pay respect to what he had achieved in Otago. He’s born and bred there – he’s from Kaitangata – so to me it was an early tribute to what he was always going to contribute to Otago rugby, which was pretty cool. It would have been nice if we’d won. We still had a party, it just wasn’t quite as good.

Tony Brown, playing in the No 10 jersey, led the Highlanders to a Super Rugby final in 1999. Their next appearance didn’t come until 2015, when they won the competition. (Photo by Phil Walter/Getty Images)

I’ve mentioned Gordy Hunter and Tony Gilbert, two free spirits in terms of rugby. That free-running Otago style was their hallmark and it’s something Brownie is now handing down to his players. 

In many ways they were the best days of our lives – that’s what they felt like at the time. 

Brownie thought they had lost some of their identity under Aaron Mauger, who is another top bloke but had a tough time of it at the Highlanders before he left last year. There was a bit of frustration there; maybe they weren’t as connected to the past as they had been. That was always important to us and it was certainly important to Brownie.

I’m encouraged by what I have seen at the Highlanders so far, although the sustained health of key men Aaron Smith and Josh Ioane is crucial. They’ve recruited a bit more size in their backline, and that was something they were lacking a little bit last year. 

Super Rugby Aotearoa is a nasty competition – it’s really tough. When I look across the squads, I believe everyone has reasons to be confident. That says something. We know how tough a competition it is when a team like the Chiefs couldn’t win a game last year.

It may not all go the Highlanders’ way, and it certainly didn’t in round one. But the Highlanders have just about the best head coach they could have hoped for.

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