To understand how Alama Ieremia helped turn around the Auckland Mitre 10 team as a rugby force, one worthy of respect and one that will test Canterbury to the fullest in tomorrow's premiership final at Eden Park, you need to know about the rules he and his fellow coaches laid down at the start of the season.

They were centred round respect and discipline. Good behaviour from his players has been rewarded, poor behaviour punished. It's easy to say, but harder to enforce and retain the engagement of a group of young men, especially in today's society.

After Auckland beat Wellington in last weekend's semifinal, loose forward Akira Ioane talked about teammates getting "shot" if they crossed Ieremia's well-marked boundaries and that's part of the reason why they have grown into such a cohesive and disciplined unit.

Ieremia, in his first season as Auckland coach after a difficult time with Manu Samoa and before that the Hurricanes, was moved to fire a few figurative rounds near the start of the season and hasn't had any problems since.


"At one stage there were 12 guys who paid the price and that was made clear in front of everyone," Ieremia told the Herald after his team's final training run of the season. The issues were a lack of proper recovery after a match and a failure to do their personal reviews.

"They were told to leave the room even before they could say anything," Ieremia said. "That in itself is a statement. After that, nobody was late and nobody stuffed up."

If 47-year-old Ieremia is the sheriff, then assistant coach Filo Tiatia, a former All Black like Ieremia, is his main deputy. Both are straight shooters. Former All Blacks coach Sir Graham Henry – part of the panel which interviewed Ieremia for the job – has also been important as a disciplinarian, and more on him shortly.

"Myself and Filo have done it in a way so it's very black and white," Ieremia said of his approach. "It's not so much 'this is what we do' and this is what it looks like when we do it right, it's 'this is what it looks like when we do it wrong'.

"With players these days, to me that's the biggest thing. We've got a society now that offers so many options, offers so many outs… that you need to make sure the players know what [isn't acceptable], because if it doesn't marry up they are easily weeded out and they don't become part of your environment.

"It's done in a way that they learn – 'this is why you've been dropped'.

"We have a big focus on rewarding players but if you're not doing the right thing then you're shot. The learning is in that and I believe that's where the gains have been. They've been big because the leaders have bought into it and once they do and lead by example then you've got something to work on."

Auckland coach Alama Ieremia. Photo / Photosport
Auckland coach Alama Ieremia. Photo / Photosport

The talent pool that Auckland rugby, and the Blues, possess is well known but unfortunately so are the issues; the foremost being a maddening record of serial underachievement over the past decade.


Could this be a turning point in the province and by extension the Super Rugby franchise?

Auckland came sixth of seven teams last season and were in danger of relegation. And while what has worked there may not necessarily work at the Blues or anywhere else because every team is different in terms of personalities and dynamics, what is clear is that Ieremia has provided a platform for success.

He said he was always going to get a response from his players once he did that.

And what a response; with some canny recruitment – including the signing of former Manu Samoa lock Fa'atiga Lemalu, and a reinforcement of the basics - they have lost only one match in 11 so far, have beaten their old enemy Canterbury in Christchurch, and are favourites to do it again in the final.

Before he stepped on to the training field for the first time Ieremia had to put his coaching team in place and it's clear he's done a good job here too, with Mike Casey scrum coach and Tai Lavea in charge of kicking strategies rounding out the group.

Ieremia marshals his team's large array of firepower as attack coach and Henry, 72, and as astute as ever, is in charge of defence.

"We've had our heated discussions and debates and we haven't agreed on some things," Ieremia said of Henry. "But that, to me, is a healthy relationship.

"I've got nothing but admiration and respect for him.

"This year, a lot was going to be based around respect and the character of the team, and that comes from the defence. And who better to do that than Ted. I know he's been out of the game, but when he speaks about attitude, it does make a difference. But also his role as a mentor and a sounding board for me has been important."

Auckland assistant coaches Filo Tiatia and Graham Henry. Photo / Photosport
Auckland assistant coaches Filo Tiatia and Graham Henry. Photo / Photosport

After finishing as head coach of Manu Samoa, Ieremia was warned against applying for the Auckland job, but his old friend the late Dylan Mika, a former Auckland and Blues player, convinced him to do so.

"He helped me and gave me the confidence to talk to the right people and galvanise a lot of people.

"I believe that what we've done to date, and I'm sure that Dylan would agree, is that we've brought some respect back to Auckland."

Before his four years in Apia – two as assistant and two as head coach – he went through three tumultuous years alongside Mark Hammett at the Hurricanes. In 2016, two years after he left, the Hurricanes won their first title, something he gained a lot of satisfaction from.

By then he was at Manu Samoa and it wasn't any easier. "Going to Samoa – I went with my eyes wide open but probably wasn't aware of some of the things that go on in that part of the world; maybe I was a little naïve in terms of some of the governance stuff that was hidden from me," he said.

"I was just purely there to try to coach. Difficult years, very difficult years… however, I've learned a lot from it."

Ieremia and his coaches have warned their players to prepare for their toughest game of the season. Canterbury have won the premiership title 10 times in the last 11 years, their only blip a loss to Taranaki in 2014.

They will have arrived in Auckland with a resolve to turn around their round-robin loss and Ieremia's men will have to play with the intelligence and control that they displayed in the semifinal.

"We're playing an institution, an establishment," he said. "We're playing a team that has a lot of history and a lot of history around finals rugby. We respect that. This will definitely be the hardest game of the year for us.

"They've evolved in the last few weeks; they've timed it and we've seen it before. Finals rugby and Canterbury and the Crusaders – those things go side by side. We've just got to make sure we're up for it.

"I say respect them, but respect them by throwing everything at them. I have a lot of confidence in what we've done. We're peaking as a team… and I believe we have the confidence and firepower to give it our best shot and I suppose that's what we've been doing all year."