Patrick McKendry is a rugby and boxing writer for the Herald.

Rugby: Highlanders coaching heads on line

Joseph safe but players' feedback to play big part in future of assistants after team's bottom-dwelling season.

Jamie Joseph's water-tight contract makes him safe until the end of next year, but his assistants might not be so lucky. Jon Preston and Scott McLeod have undergone a torrid first season at the Highlanders after moving themselves and their families to Dunedin.

Preston, a former All Black, moved from Wellington and a job as a broadcaster for Sky Television while McLeod, who was also an All Black, shifted from a role as assistant coach of Waikato in Hamilton. The pair, who replaced Simon Culhane and Kieran Keane, signed two-year contracts.

Despite several calls to the Highlanders franchise yesterday, chief executive Roger Clark could not be reached for comment in response to revelations that Joseph was effectively unsackable as coach. His contract runs out at the end of next year but he negotiated the clause into his contract before agreeing terms for his first season in 2011.

Joseph, a former All Blacks and Highlanders loose forward, was lured from Wellington to replace former Highlanders coach Glenn Moore.

He began his reign with a mid-table finish and a ninth-placed finish last season. This year, his side have been candidates for the wooden spoon, their win over the Hurricanes last weekend lifting them off the bottom of the table. It's understood Preston and McLeod have been surprised by the workload involved in coaching at Super Rugby level and while both will consider themselves better coaches as a result of their experiences this year - the Highlanders have won only three matches from 15 - much will depend on how they were rated by the players, feedback which the Highlanders board will examine with interest.

The board may feel that Joseph needs more experience around him after a season notable not only for regular defeats, but also for poor on-field discipline.

Preston, a former halfback and first-five, has had some involvement as a skills coach with Wellington but this is his first fulltime coaching role.

He said in a September interview that he had been surprised to be given a call-up by Joseph.

"It happened fairly recently actually: Jamie rang me out of the blue and asked if I was interested," Preston said then.

"And, of course, we started talking. It's exciting to get an opportunity like this - they don't necessarily come along that often. So you grab it and go for it."

New Zealand's Super Rugby franchises place enormous importance on players' views, which is why they are surveyed at the end of every season. All management staff are scrutinised by the players, the results available to the chief executive and board of each team.

Daryl Gibson was a casualty at the Crusaders' last season, despite his team finishing at the semifinal stage with a defeat to the Chiefs, the eventual champions, in Hamilton.

Gibson, in charge of the backs, was demoted to a defence role by head coach Todd Blackadder but resigned and accepted a job as an assistant at the Waratahs.

Joseph and his assistants are in Melbourne preparing for their final match of the season against the Rebels tomorrow night.



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