You know you are talking to a forwards’ coach when he lists one of the highlights of his successful stint with the Tasman Mako as a lineout win against Auckland.
Clarke Dermody, a no-nonsense Southland prop who made three appearances for the All Blacks in 2006, has been an integral part of the Mako success story over the past three seasons.
He joined Tasman in 2018, when Leon MacDonald was head coach, helping them to a Mitre 10 Cup semifinal that year. For the past two seasons he has shared the head coaching role with Andrew Goodman as the Mako have become back-to-back premiership winners.
At the start of the 2020 season, Clarke decided it was time for a change to his regular workload, which has involved seven seasons coaching the Highlanders, followed immediately by provincial involvement, firstly with Southland, then the Mako.
This year he will continue to coach the Highlanders but will take a break after the Super Rugby season is over.
“It is time to give the family a bit of my time … it would have been easy to keep going because I love it so much, but I am going to spend some time at home after the Super Rugby.”
Asked to explain what has made the Mako such a successful unit in recent years, Clarke quickly identifies a key area.
“Among the group of players they have got now there is a good balance of leaders who are local lads that have come through over the past three to five years … they are good rugby players but they also have really high standards and just love the province and will do anything to win for it.
“Also there is the Academy set-up and the high-performance work that has been going on … but if you boil it right down it is that group of senior players who have come through over the last few seasons that have made the difference. Guys like David [Havili], Quin [Strange], Mitch [Hunt] and Ethan [Blackadder].”
Much has been said about the unique “Mako culture” that is at the core of the team’s success story. Clarke feels that returning to the Mako culture and such an energetic group each year is what keeps the Super Rugby players fresh, despite some having already been through a draining campaign.
“It has grown into a place where the players love coming into work every day … win lose or draw.
“If they are coming in after a loss they are hungry to find out what happened and get better. It’s the same after a win as well. There is a drive at the start of each week to get better. And that’s in everything - on and off the field.”
Clarke suggested he was “pretty lucky” to come onto the Makos scene when he did.
“A lot of the groundwork had been done by KK [Kieran Keane] and Leon. Then I managed to get alongside Goody, who is an outstanding coach as well, to follow through what had been set up over that first eight years.”
After picking up his first Mitre 10 Cup premiership with a forward pack stacked full of proven top-level performers in 2019, a spate of defections and commitments at a higher level meant Clarke faced a new, wider challenge in 2020.
“This year was completely different to 2019 when there was a whole lot of expectation, just because of the group we had.
“Then obviously we lost all that experience, but the expectation remained.
“We were going into the 2020 season as red-hot favourites but for me a lot of that was perception from outside the group. We knew that we were pretty much starting again … the lucky thing was that those young fellas had learned so much from the experienced guys that had left, so we had a good base to start from.”
He described Tasman’s latest title as “pretty hard-earned”.
“A lot of time went into it … I think the emotion the players showed at the end of the game was not shock, more relief that the hard work had paid off.”
Clarke sees a bright immediate future for the Mako.
“Everything is in place for them to continue doing what they are doing … the squad for next year is still pretty strong and there will be some guys such as Pari Pari [Parkinson], Ethan [Blackadder] and Atu [Moli] coming back from injury.
“As long as the boys have that hunger, which I am sure they will, I can see it continuing.”
Oh, and returning to that highlight. The lineout win he was referring to came in the last minute of the 2020 final at Eden Park. It was a set piece the Mako needed to win, then hold the ball as the final seconds ticked by.
“I really enjoyed that because you train those scenarios for those reasons … they executed under a fair bit of pressure. If there was a stand-out moment, that would probably be it.”
There speaks a true forwards coach, one whose input will be sorely missed in the top of the south.