It can all be traced back to Vic Cavanagh; the 1971 Lions, the current All Blacks, the Highlanders and essentially rugby as we know it were all influenced by ‘young Vic’.
‘Old Vic’ Cavanagh brought in the 3-4-1 scrum; his son ‘young Vic’ championed rucking and honed the forward-orientated ‘Southern style’, which saw Otago repel 17 challenges to the Ranfurly Shield in the 1940s. When the 1971 Lions journeyed to Dunedin for the ninth match of their tour, their great coach Carwyn James sought out ‘young Vic’ for a coaching clinic. Fred Allen, who coached the All Blacks from 1966 to 1968, also learned from the late Cavanagh.
‘Young Vic’ championed quick ball — “the firstest is the mostest”, was one of his sayings — but it was his coaching philosophy and work in around the game which has laid the foundations for rugby in this part of the world.
Otago has a proud history of making a big old impact on world rugby. Tom Ellison, who captained New Zealand in 1893, introduced the black shirt and silver fern and developed the wing forward. Billy Stead, from Invercargill, wrote the innovative, revolutionary ‘Complete Rugby Footballer’ with the great Dave Gallaher in 1906 while Jimmy Duncan, from Dunedin, was the first All Blacks coach and is credited with inventing the term ‘five-eighth’. But it is ‘young Vic’ who, unbeknownst to him, has had a profound influence on the current All Blacks and Highlanders.
Laurie Mains was one of his pupils and he was Steve Hansen’s first rugby coach, while ‘young Vic’s’ coaching ethos runs through the current Highlanders’ DNA.
Mains, who coached the All Blacks to the 1995 Rugby World Cup final, was one of 10 inaugural inductees to Otago’s Rugby Hall of Fame back in August 2011 with ‘young Vic’ also in that number. Mains’ blood is blue and gold; he played over 100 games for them, coached them over 100 times from 1984 to 1991 and the Highlanders from 2002 to 2003. He lives and breathes Otago.
But he did fall out of love with rugby. From 2004 to 2013, they never finished above sixth in the Super Rugby standings. They had fallen away from their Otago roots, much to the frustration of those associated with their proud history. But under the tutelage of Jamie Joseph, they made incremental improvements resulting in the 2015 Super Rugby title. Mains watched on, beaming with pride.
“The Highlanders went through a pretty rocky spell before Jamie got here and he went back to what he learned here as a player and played here seven or eight years,” Mains told ESPN. “What he learned as a player, he unlocked in the Highlanders this self-belief and the key to it is the way you train.
“They put so much work into training and they take the field knowing they can do what they want to set out to do. They’re so good at it in the training and that goes way back to Vic Cavanagh’s day.”
They went back to the roots of sheer, bloody hard work.
“Jamie Joseph carried on the Otago tradition,” Mains said.
“It’s knowing the basics of your rugby, the basic skills that are required for any phase in the game or any play you want to have. And practising it enough so you can do it in the pitch black and the hard work which goes with it.
“At grass roots you get all the basics done first, before you start building it up. These guys get so good at doing the basics that it makes the sensational things they do make people think it’s just ‘come off’. Well it hasn’t just ‘come off’, they work because of all the work they’ve put in to enable the advances plays to be played with ease. Jamie reintroduced that to Highlanders and Otago rugby when it had been gone for a few years.”
Alongside their training, was harnessing the underdog spirit of Otago rugby. There was also astute recruitment with Aaron Smith brought in from Manawatu and Waisake Naholo was signed and turned from a centre to a winger. Superstars were grown from humble roots, it is the Otago roots.
“Otago from way back when I was a kid watching them play through to the 10 years I played Otago and the 10 years I coached, it’s always been a team that punches above its weight,” Mains said. “They’ve always been underdogs and done a hell of a lot better than people think we should.
“It’s the effort and pride we put into the jersey and the effort the players put into it. It’s fabulous. There are some who regard some of our players as pretty average – I’m not one of them – but they’re super players, the way they rise and play above their weight. That’s the epitome of what Otago rugby has always been about.”
The last time the Lions were in town in 2005, they played at Carisbrook — the ground nicknamed ‘the house of pain’. That’s now reduced to rubble, with the Neville Street turnstyle the only reminder of its former, intimidating glory.
On Tuesday night Warren Gatland’s Lions play at the Forsyth-Barr Stadium with Tony Brown now in charge of the Highlanders — Joseph is with Japan. Faces change, so does the stadium but the Highlanders will be rooted in the Otago tradition of innovation and brutal hard work.
“It does not get any easier, the Lions have to start thinking about the Test matches,” Mains said. “It will be hard work for them. The ground will be dry, the Highlanders will play at a hell of a pace. I do have a great deal of passion for Otago and Highlanders rugby and this team has regenerated all of my pride because of what Jamie did with a pretty average group of players.
“This year they’ve gone on with it under Tony Brown, but they’ve taken on the passion and remembered everything they learned from Jamie. The coaching team is very effective and cohesive. It’s great to see, I love it.”