Clarke Dermody is a former John Deere tractor salesman making a name for himself as a coach at the Highlanders. He chatted with Alex Chapman about his accidental career change.
Clarke Dermody didn’t plan on being a coach. In fact, he didn’t even plan on being a professional rugby player. “I was always going to be a rugby player, I just didn’t know it was going to be a career.”
But it’s how life has unraveled in footy for the former prop; opportunistically, accidentally.
“The Highlanders and Southland have given me everything really,” he says. “Roger Clark [now Highlanders CEO], when he was boss of Southland, offered me and Jimmy Cowan contracts. It was absolutely nothing financially, but it was ‘gee, how cool’s this?!’ I’d just left school as an 18-year-old and I didn’t even know what a contract was. But it gave us the chance to delve into rugby. And then the Highlanders gave me opportunities as a player, and have now taken a punt on me as a coach.”
A punt which has seemingly paid off. But the path to now being the Highlanders assistant coach, was far from traditional.
Dermody is humble enough to acknowledge where he was at in his playing career and the reason for his move offshore after the 2007 World Cup - a tournament which he wasn’t selected for. He was part of a mass exodus in New Zealand Rugby, many of whom were fringe All Blacks.
“I’m pretty realistic around how good I was. It was awesome to make the All Blacks, but I was a solid Super Rugby player and played a lot of games for Southland. But when I got in the All Blacks, it was because Tony Woodcock was injured, and Neemia Tialata was the other prop. I was always going to be the extra guy, or in and out - I mean Woody went on to play 100 tests, and had already been playing three years by then, so it was always going to be hard to nudge him out.”[Text Wrapping Break]
Dermody admits to using rugby as a timeline for marking significant moments in life. Take him and wife Sarah’s relationship for example. “We met in Invercargill, we went to school there, and just met around town. It’s a pretty small place so everyone knows everyone. Then we got married in….”
Dermody pauses to think, he doesn’t want to get in trouble at home. “2005? I normally work it out with what was happening in footy at the time. So yeah, 2005. And then 2006 I made the All Blacks, and then Carter [their now 15-year-old son] was born that year. He was born just before the tour, and then when I got back into Invercargill airport, there was a photo with me and him in the paper. I do remember that.”
[Text Wrapping Break]After three All Blacks tests, 44 appearances for the Highlanders and 89 games for his beloved Southland, Clarke and the Dermody family [minus yet to be born daughter Maggie, who’s now 11] headed to the UK. A three-year deal with London Irish, turned into five.
“We wanted to be somewhere English speaking, so that took France out. We had a couple of opportunities in England, and London being London, the club is close to Heathrow Airport. It’s amazing how many people come through the city, just on visits, so we always had people over, whether they were in the UK or on their way to somewhere else. London Irish was awesome, they looked after families well. It was a good, fun place to play.”
But then aged 31, a back injury ended Dermody’s playing career in 2012. Rugby, all of a sudden, was kicked into touch. “We got home, and I ended up selling tractors. I didn’t have a lot to do with rugby,” Dermody says. But a call from his old coach at Southland ended that.
David Henderson was still in charge of the Stags, and was keen to catch up for a coffee. “He asked what I was up to and I said ‘I’m actually selling tractors’. So he told me that if I wanted to go down and give them a hand then I could. So I went down on Tuesday afternoons and I knew nothing really about coaching. But it’s like that for a lot of players who transition into coaching - it’s more that you’re just trying to teach what you did for a start, and then you pretty quickly find out what works and what doesn’t.”
And he obviously did. Fast forward 18 months and Dermody was scoped out for some help. This time, at the Highlanders.
“I was at an All Blacks reunion dinner in Dunedin, and I ran into Jamie Joseph. I’d never really met Jake, but he asked again what I was up to and I said ‘I’m selling tractors mate.’ And then he said ‘you should come do a session for us’. I pretty much drove up on Tuesday, did a session, and as I was driving back he rang and asked how it went. I said that I thought it was alright and he said ‘yup, the boys liked it, come do another on Thursday.’ That’s how my career as a coach started.”
So, how does a former player, turned tractor salesman, approach coaching? “I’m a pretty collaborative coach. I like the boys to have a say in what they’re doing. I feel when they’ve had input into it, they buy in more and commit to the plan a bit better. I’m also pretty level. I don’t get too emotional and am pretty consistent with what they’re seeing out of me. I’m not going to rant and rave and yell. There’s a time and place for it, but it’s something I haven’t learnt to do yet and not something I really appreciated as a player.”[Text Wrapping Break]
It’s an approach which clearly works. Dermody’s coaching career is on an upwards trajectory. Tony Brown’s right hand man is now his successor in waiting. Not that Dermody would admit that.
After serving as one of the passengers, he was given the keys to the Highlanders car when head coach Brown linked up with Japan ahead of their one-off test against the British and Irish Lions in June, instead of staying for the Super Rugby trans-Tasman season. Coincidentally, Brown works under Jamie Joseph with the Brave Blossoms.
Dermody laughs when reflecting on how entertaining he found the swift spread of gossip wildfire, that he was auditioning to be the Highlanders head coach.
“Brownie was always going to come back next season and be the head coach again.” Dermody insists. “I think it was a sort of throw-away comment he made that if I’d do a good job, he’d come back and there’d be a change of roles. It was never going to happen. It got picked up by someone and made into a thing. But it’s funny how that happens, eh? A throw away comment becomes the headline.
[Text Wrapping Break]“Was it an audition? I don’t know. I never set out to be the All Blacks head coach at the end of the day, that being the top job in the country. I’ve just always taken whatever comes next. I’ve gone from selling tractors, to coaching one day a week, to two days a week, to a full-time role with the Highlanders. It’s not something I ever mapped out. We’ll see what happens in the next couple of years.”
And after having a taste of it, Dermody now knows what to expect if he ever does get to permanently sit at the head of the table. “I learnt that head coaches don’t get as much sleep as assistant coaches! But it’s also more around how you can support a head coach every week. As an assistant coach, you’re focussed on what you need to do, and if you achieve that, then you’ve done your job. As a head coach, there’s a lot of things you have to pick up where the other coaches can take some of the heat off - there’s opportunities around selection talks, mindset stuff, and that ends up being quite a big job on top of the coaching role.”
Dermody at least has one accomplishment on his CV which Brown doesn’t as a head coach; a Super Rugby final. The Highlanders surprised many when they made this year’s inaugural trans-Tasman decider, before losing to the Blues at Eden Park.
Having never won a title as a player, it was a bitter pill for coach Dermody to swallow. “I was just gutted we didn’t play our best that night, and don’t get me wrong, the Blues played well. They kicked well, attacked those breakdowns. But the proudest thing was how we stayed in it. I mean we even led at one stage. But there was a period of about five minutes which we just couldn’t nail. And if we’d held on, the emotions of the local crowd, man, that would’ve been a lot of pressure on them."
For now though, Dermody’s happy being an assistant coach, a dad and a husband. He and the family are into a three month renovation on their house. Like with everything in life, Dermody says he’ll just “take it as it comes.”
“I might write greeting cards or something… It’d be a pretty short life-advice book.”