A Northland man is back, on some unfinished business, to coach Northland.
Former All Black Derren Witcombe, now 38, has returned from two years with Japanese club Mitsubishi Dynaboars to try and help resurrect the fortunes of the ailing Taniwha in the Mitre 10 Cup Championship.
Witcombe was at the helm in 2014, guiding the Taniwha to a semifinal berth after a 5-5 record. A consistent, locals first selection policy saw players such as loose forward Dan Pryor, halves Tane Takalua and Dan Hawkins, fullback Matt Wright and speedy wing Jone Macilai thrive. But Witcombe, who was due to coach them again in 2015, flew the coop at late notice.
In came Aucklander Richie Harris, who oversaw one win from the 2015-16 seasons. The second year was much better than the first, but the popular Harris was not able to turn around the results and did not reapply for the position, though he is still working at the union. However, the Taniwha were far more competitive in 2016 and lowered Waikato. It is this competitive spirit, exemplified by the likes of workaholic loose forward Matt Matich, that Witcombe will look to build on.
He feels he is a better coach now than when he left.
"I made growth professionally and personally over there. Japan is good for your coaching. You have to keep things simple and communicate differently to get your message across at times. Obviously using a translator is challenging. The Japanese understanding of English is different, so you have to be careful with your messages," says Witcombe.
The Dynaboars, who had Ryan Nicholas, Hamish Gard and Faifili Levave in their playing ranks, won the Top East league, but a fortnight ago dropped their promotion match to the Top League. Witcombe reckons the Top East league is well below Mitre 10 Cup level, with too many easy games. But it was good money for him, so he is not returning to Northland for the coin, but rather to sink his teeth into this three-year job of getting the Taniwha back up in the rankings with a long-term ambition of coaching at a Super Rugby franchise.
"I was always looking to come back at some stage, and Northland would have been nice. I had another year on my (Dynaboars) contract. I was approached to apply for the Northland job, went through the process and made the decision once I got offered the role," Witcombe says. "I felt the timing was right. There's a little bit of unfinished business with Northland."
He officially starts work on April 1, as the Northland union director of rugby and Taniwha head coach, but while taking a breath after the long Japanese season, he will be floating in and out of the office, planning with assistant Dale MacLeod and tapping into his knowledge of local players as well as getting amongst the club scene.
"On paper, they made have had a better team (in 2016) than we had in 2014. It's about the basics for me. Do them to a high level. Some things may just need a tweak to get better. The key things for me are set-piece and defence."
Thus far there are 18 contracted players for 2017, with a few close to putting pen to paper. Northland will ultimately have at least 26 under contract, but possibly one or two more should their budget allow.
Witcombe is making it a priority to manage the reintegration of Super players back into the Mitre 10 Cup. Auckland found, to their cost in 2016, that it is not that easy. So watch for the likes of Sam Nock, Kara Pryor, Matt Moulds and Josh Goodhue (Blues), Solomon Alaimalo (Chiefs), Dan Pryor (Highlanders), and Jone Macilai and Jack Goodhue (Crusaders) to all be ready to rock come August. The signing of the latter, from Canterbury, is a smart piece of business, as he is a Kawakawa lad and will join his twin brother Josh in the Cambridge blue this season.
Witcombe is also strong in looking from within for his players. He wants passionate Northland rugby men or those who are giving their guts for clubs in the region.
"That's not going to change. Anyone we sign from outside the region needs to be better than what we have locally or if there is a shortage in that position."
He can take inspiration from what North Harbour have achieved. After propping up the table from 2011-13, they underwent a reawakening under Steve Jackson, culminating in their stirring charge to the 2016 Mitre 10 Cup Championship.
"It's inspiring to see what Harbour have done. We weren't too far off in 2014. There's no reason why we can't do what Harbour did. It's having good values and standards on and off the field and doing the simple things well. It's a simple game that we sometimes over-complicate," he says.