Magpies head coach Mark Ozich talks to Hawke's Bay Today editor Craig Cooper about 2020 Mitre 10 Cup aspirations and what the fans mean to his squad.
The fans aren't shy to tell Magpies coach Mark Ozich whether or not he, or his rugby team, are doing a good job.
"If we are not playing and laying it on the line and they can't see that translate through the performance ... they will let you know."
With a coaching CV that includes coaching or assisting with NZ Secondary School teams and the Southland Stags, Ozich is now well settled in his work with the Magpies after a role at Hastings Boys' High School lured him to the region in 2016.
From Hastings' Boys, Ozich transitioned to an assistant role with the Magpies in 2017, before securing the vacant head coach position in November that year after Hawke's Bay Magpies coach Craig Philpott took up a job with New Zealand Rugby.
In 2019, after good team performances, Ozich's two-year contract was extended.
"I am contracted until the end of the 2021 season and depending on how things go, would love to still be here," he says.
Hard work has gone into maintaining a stable Magpies squad for 2020, Ozich says.
Fans will see some familiar faces, and some new faces as well.
"Sona Taumalolo is back from France, and we have picked up Lolagi Visinia and Kurt Baker as additions to the backline."
Baker and Visinia both have form as NZ Sevens players, with Baker also turning out for the Māori All Blacks. Visinia has played professional rugby in France and Japan, after stints with the Blues.
"As a coach I felt it [the backline] needed an upgrade in size and power which Lolagi gives us, and then Kurt Baker with our young backs just gives us a real competitive edge, which I felt we needed, which I couldn't get locally," says Ozich.
The Magpies coaching group also has a squad that used the Covid-19 lockdown period to stay fit, recover from niggling injuries and refresh in general.
Covid-19 also means the 2020 Mitre Cup season will see more All Blacks than usual filtered through the playing rosters.
In particular, Canterbury - who are third game up for the Magpies - are well endowed with Men in Black.
"I think it is a challenge for sure, and they are good but we will be encouraging our guys to walk towards it and challenge it head-on and not be afraid of it or overawed by it," says Ozich.
The 2020 Magpies squad includes young homegrown talent, mixing it with mentors including All Blacks Brad Weber and Gareth Evans, and experienced players like Ash Dixon and Michael Allardice.
"There is a number of those Hastings Boys' team of 2016/17 that won the national titles, so young Devan Flanders and Kianu (Kereru-Symes) and Folau (Fakatava) — those guys are in their third season now so it is really an opportunity for them to show ... that they can really compete."
Young players need mentors - on and off the field.
"Their [senior players'] input is massive in terms of role-modelling back to those younger guys and what it take to actually be a professional."
Ask Ozich to talk about coaching principles and honesty comes up again.
"I think, keeping it really simple for the guys around honesty, an honest effort, honesty around homework, honesty with your performance."
So what can fans expect in 2020 when it comes to the brand of rugby the team will be playing?
"I think it is going to be 'Hawke's Bay' so we are going to have a few driving mauls and we are going to challenge teams in the forward pack.
"We have some exciting backs and some talent, so moving the ball and ... using the width of the field. In amongst that it will be my challenge to help our young guys make good decisions around when to play and when to kick and play territory.
"That whole decision-making and game management with our young team hopefully will improve but certainly we don't want to die wondering.
"When we play the public will see a team who are throwing it down ... and hopefully it comes through ... that we are pretty committed to what we are doing as a group."