Vern Cotter is coming home to lead a coaching overhaul at the Blues.
The Blues confirmed this morning that the vastly experienced Cotter has, as previously revealed by the Herald, accepted a two-year contract to succeed Leon MacDonald.
Cotter’s appointment cements his return to New Zealand rugby for the first time in 17 years. He will be joined by a new assistant coach, former Hurricanes and one-test All Blacks midfielder Jason O’Halloran, who has also signed two-year deal, as the Blues significantly reshape their coaching team for next season.
O’Halloran is expected to assume the attack brief at the Blues after honing his coaching craft in Japan, Manawatū and Scotland, where he linked with Cotter from 2014-2017 to lead the national team to fifth in the world.
While Craig McGrath retains responsibility for the Blues defence, Dan Halangahu is expected to shift from attack to a skills focus in the coaching reshuffle.
Cotter’s traditional forwards focus and Paul Tito’s ongoing presence likely leaves no room for Tom Coventry, although he and Tana Umaga may be retained within the Blues in some capacity.
Cotter’s long-time relationship with All Blacks assistant Joe Schmidt - dating back to 2000 when they joined forces to lead Bay of Plenty to the Ranfurly Shield – could yet rekindle their ties at the Blues next year.
After missing out on Dave Rennie and Clark Laidlaw in their quest to replace MacDonald as head coach, the Blues believe Cotter’s hard-nosed experience will spark a renewed edge.
While MacDonald’s five-year tenure lifted the Blues to consistent contenders, Cotter will be charged with improving their finals flops in the last two seasons following their grim 52-15 semifinal defeat to the Crusaders in Christchurch.
“I would like to extend my thanks to the entire Blues organisation for putting their trust in me,” Cotter said.
“I’ve watched this club thrive in recent years and I’m excited by the challenge of taking them forward and building on what is a very strong base.
“It’s great to have Jason joining me at the Blues. Since our time in Scotland we’ve remained firm friends and often pick up the phone to discuss current trends in the game – I know he’ll add real value to an already strong coaching team.
“When you take a new role it’s important to acknowledge what’s been going well for a team, while constructively challenging aspects you feel could improve. I think I can add fresh thinking, informed by my broad and varied coaching experiences to date.
“I’m looking forward to getting stuck in with the Blues and I’m energised to be back in New Zealand coaching at Super Rugby level.”
Cotter’s coaching philosophy is significantly shaped by nine years in France where he led Clermont to their maiden Top 14 title, alongside Schmidt, before spending three years at Mohed Altrad’s Montpellier.
Earlier this year the 61-year-old resigned from leading Fiji after the demand for a local coach rapidly emerged following a change of government.
Blues chairman Don Mackinnon welcomed the coaching changes and Cotter’s partnership with O’Halloran.
“We’ve been in communication with Vern for a while now and what shone through in our conversations was his desire to drive the club forward while building on the strong culture we’ve developed at the Blues over the last few years. He’s an experienced and driven coach, has a history of success and I believe is the right fit for the role,” Mackinnon said.
“Vern and Jason have proven they work well together, and we believe the pair will provide some fresh thinking and energy to take the club forward.
“We’re really happy with our coaching mix for 2024 and beyond and believe Vern is the right man to set the direction for our coaching group and continue the development of some excellent younger coaches.”
“We’re looking forward to welcoming both Vern and Jason to our team,” added Blues CEO Andrew Hore. “We feel they will fit seamlessly into our coaching group and wider business.”
Cotter’s appointment completes a drastically different Super Rugby landscape next season that will feature three new head coaches as Rob Penney replaces Scott Robertson at the Crusaders, and Laidlaw succeeds Jason Holland with the Hurricanes.
New Zealand Rugby’s manager of professional rugby Simon Simmers backed Cotter to make an immediate impression with the Blues.
“Vern’s coached internationally at Rugby World Cups and knows what it takes to win titles in Europe. He will bring all those insights and knowledge back to the Blues and Super Rugby Pacific. It’s great to have Vern home.”