SAY New Zealand and you think rugby superpower. They may only have finally managed to win the World Cup for a second time last time around, and for the first time since the inaugural hosting in 1987, but they have always been the game’s undisputed hotbed.
However, it was interesting to note in the local reports of Jason O’Halloran’s departure to join compatriot Vern Cotter in the Scotland set-up, a rather exasperated tone. While not quite of existential proportions, another promising young coach heading overseas seems to have the Kiwis a tad hot under the collar.
As well as Cotter, there is Warren Gatland at Wales, Joe Schmidt at Ireland and a peppering of other top New Zealand coaches, like Robbie Deans, in club rugby in countries such as Japan, France and England.
The clear disappointment that O’Halloran is heading north rather than moving up to Super Rugby, suggests that Scotland have bagged themselves a good ’un in the shape of the 43-year-old former Wellington Hurricanes centre, who will replace Edinburgh-bound Duncan Hodge as national backs coach after the World Cup. It continues Cotter’s shake-up of the backroom staff, with Nathan Hines confirmed in a forwards/mentoring role early in the month and Massimo Cuttitta departing.
O’Halloran’s stock rose last year when he led Manawatu to their first provincial title since 1980, when they won the ITM Championship.
Yesterday he was keen to play down talk of a slight on his homeland and, indeed, hinted that he viewed the move as a potential stepping stone to the All Blacks.
O’Halloran told the New Zealand Herald: “I just felt in terms of being the best coach I can be, working with Vern is a way of getting there. It’s not a snub on New Zealand rugby.
“If you talk to people around who they think a potential successor is for Steve Hansen, the two names I always hear are Dave Rennie and Vern Cotter.”
Undeterred by being an insulin-dependent diabetic, O’Halloran forged a fine career at provincial and Super Rugby level, scoring 35 tries in 95 games for Wellington, and 17 in 54 for the Hurricanes.
In 2000 he represented New Zealand A against England and then captained the side against Tonga and Samoa, before earning his first and only All Black cap as a replacement against Italy in Genoa later that year.
He finished his playing career with Japanese club Kubota Spears, where he began his coaching career in 2005.
He was then appointed high performance academy manager of Manawatu in 2007, before being the first coach to lead the province to a title in 34 years.
It was there that he oversaw the development of some the nation’s top young exponents, including half-backs Aaron Cruden and Aaron Smith, before taking on the role of head coach of the Turbos, which he has occupied since 2011.
In his new role, O’Halloran will be tasked with getting the best out of what is the most exciting crop of young Scottish backs, including the likes of Alex Dunbar, Mark Bennett, Matt Scott and Stuart Hogg, for many a year. Yesterday Cotter said: “Jason was a very good rugby player and is an excellent coach. I’ve kept tabs on him for a number of years, with him coming well-recommended over that time.
“He’s very strong on individual development, has a very good eye on attack and how to open up opportunities. I think our players will thrive and develop under him. His arrival is another plus for Scottish rugby; he’ll bring another perspective and develop our players here in Scotland.”
O’Halloran added: “I’m looking forward to working with an exciting group of players under a widely respected Head Coach in Vern Cotter. I believe in the style Vern is pursuing and that there is significant growth potential in a young and enthusiastic squad. Working with that type of talent excites me.