Daniel Halangahu could scarcely be in a better place right now.
The former Waratahs flyhalf is currently based in Auckland working for the Blues rugby franchise as skills and backs coach.
With New Zealand all but eradicating COVID-19, the five Kiwi franchises returned to the pitch in mid-June to kick-start the domestic Super Rugby Aotearoa competition.
And what an incredible eight weeks it’s been. SRA has arguably delivered the finest provincial/franchise competition in the sport’s history.
The games have been mesmerisingly good and the crowd numbers have surged. In terms of Aotearoa’s effect on the public, you could reasonably call it a Kiwi provincial rugby renaissance.
“It’s been incredible,” says Halangahu.
“Something that rugby people not just in New Zealand but across the globe can appreciate is the passion for the game that’s been re-ignited here during this competition.
“(It’s great) to see a full Eden Park and just people loving Super Rugby and being so passionate again. Around Auckland there’s a real buzz about the Blues and that’s happening all over New Zealand.”
In previous years there’s been a noticeably high percentage of unoccupied seats at New Zealand Super Rugby games.
Not anymore. Spectator numbers are up whether it be games involving the cellar-dweller Chiefs or the high-flying Crusaders.
“In this format the Crusaders sold out their game against us after not selling out for years,” says Halangahu.
“Even when they were winning championships and hosted a final they didn’t sell it out.”
The Blues have been pulling the competition’s biggest audiences. More than 100,000 supporters have crossed through the turnstiles in their three home games so far.
And they’ve been treated to some rip-roaring rugby with their side winning a perfect three from three on their home patch. It’s been a more than decent year all-round for the Blues who are 9-4 overall with their Super Rugby games factored in. That’s a massive turn-around from last year’s 5-1-10 mark.
Halangahu, now in his second year in the job, has seen this progression first-hand. The 36-year-old has been pleased with what he’s seen but, like the rest of the Blues brains trust, still feels they have plenty more room left for growth.
“We see improvement and that’s what we’re happy with,” he says.
“But we’re also not happy. We’ve not improved as much as we could have and left some results out there.
“We’ve got the right type of players here and we’re working hard as a coaching group and a playing group. If you’ve got the right type of characters with a bit of resilience, who are willing to learn, put their bodies on the line and train their guts out then good things are going to happen, which they’ve started to.
“But at the same time we haven’t turned up each week and performed as well as we want.”
I spoke with the thoughtful and amiable Halangahu smack-bang in the middle of the past week. Preparation was happening in earnest for the Blues’ hit-out against the Highlanders.
It’s an intricate process. Precise and thorough. It’s also far advanced from what Halangahu recalls during his time with the Waratahs.
“Rugby these days has changed a lot even since I played Super Rugby,” he says.
“It’s just evolved so much with the amount of detail and information given to our players hare in NZ: the skill reviews and the coaching, the two-way aspect that we have back and forth with the players providing feedback, growing and learning and changing. It’s just so different to what we experienced as players.
“Last night I was up sending out information on the different movements and plays that we use. The players will see an animated PowerPoint presentation that sort of thing, also some video which they can look at before they come in the next day.
“We’ll tick that off in the morning to check their understanding. After that we’ll look at some of the detail of how the Highlanders defend, then go out and put it into practice on the field.”
Technology far from ends with word processing and media software. In the follow-up field session, controlled implements float in the sky above the players capturing footage of their every movement.
“Our training is filmed by a drone so when we come back inside we can see how it all looked,” says Halangahu.
“We then make sure that the lines and all the specific detail is accurate and what we want. Then you might adjust something.
“Later on we’ll get in the gym. We’ve got a really good facility here that allows us to work on the micro-skills around our passing and the little stuff around delivery and the breakdown.”
Based on the recent performances of the Blues’ back line, the detail and hard work seems to be paying off. Rieko Ioane, Caleb Clarke and Mark Telea have all been in outstanding form this campaign.
The latter is particularly well known to Halangahu. Telea debuted with the Blues this year after several years developing his game with provincial side, North Harbour. Halangahu coached Telea there in 2016, which was the Australian’s first coaching endeavour after retiring as a player earlier that year.
Halangahu originally departed Sydney for foreign shores in 2012 after making 74 appearances for the Waratahs. He would play another four years professionally with three different teams: Zebre (Italy), Narbonne (France) and North Harbour.
The Kiwi province asked him back to coach after his second and final go-around with them in 2015. That led to an opportunity coaching with the Blues’ under-18 and under-20 sides before rising to his present role in 2019.
That season he worked with All Blacks legends Ma’a Nonu and Sonny Bill Williams. This year he’s mentoring the aforementioned youngsters and also augmenting the careers of another pair of genuine Kiwi rugby superstars.
Firstly, Beauden Barrett. After taking time off during Super Rugby earlier this year, he returned to the pitch with his new team for SRA. Halangahu is effusive in his praise for the freakish flyhalf/fullback.
“The first thing that impressed me was that he’s such a good man,” he says.
“Really down to earth – just Beauden from the farm.
“The second thing is how professional he is. He has time for everyone but he is the hardest working player I’ve seen since somebody like George Gregan.
“George was the ultimate professional and Beaudy is also of that mould. He’s definitely taken us to another level in our professionalism and work ethic.”
Then there is the man they call ‘The Master’. Daniel Carter has been teasing rugby fans for the past two months that he is about to make his return to pro rugby in New Zealand after five years abroad.
Halangahu, of course, is all too familiar with Carter’s prodigious talent. They opposed each other several times during their days playing in Super Rugby.
“I was unfortunate enough to come up against Dan a few times!” says Halangahu.
“That tells you how old he is and he won’t mind me saying that.”
Following Sunday’s game against the Highlanders there is a bye week, leaving the Blues just their final fixture against the Crusaders to round out SRA. These two adversaries played a humdinger of a game just a few weeks ago in Christchurch. The intensity, atmosphere and the standard of play on showcase that evening greatly surpassed anything fans typically see at a provincial level.
“After that game there was similar feedback not only from our players and the officials, but from people all over the world – that was almost a Test match out there!” says Halangahu.
The re-match is a tantalising prospect and depending on other results, could ultimately decide who wins the competition. A few things will need to go the Blues’ way to put them in a position to win the title, including the Crusaders losing to the Highlanders in Round 9.
Halangahu fully expects the season finale to be a special event regardless of the equation.
“As just a rugby purist and somebody who enjoys the game – whether it’s for a trophy or not – playing at Eden Park against arguably the best provincial team in the world is going to be a great occasion,” he says.
No doubt about that. With sporting competitions across the globe currently playing in echoey stadiums with few – if any – spectators, a packed and roaring Eden Park on August 16 will be a rugby game to savour.
And it will have a little sprinkling of Aussie in it. Daniel Halangahu will be perched up in the Blues’ coach’s box raking his eyes over a game that might will be the best sporting spectacle, let alone rugby spectacle, seen anywhere in the world in 2020.
Daniel Halangahu’s coaching CV
• 2019-present: Blues (backs and skills coach)
• 2016-18: Blues under-18 and under-20 (coach)
• 2016-18: North Harbour (assistant coach)
Daniel Halangahu’s playing record
• 74 Waratahs caps
• 19 Zebre caps
• 38 Narbonne caps
• 17 North Harbour caps
• Six Shute Shield titles
Also represented: Australia A, Sydney Fleet (ARC), Sydney University (Shute Shield), Australia U21s, Australian Sevens, Daramalan College, The King’s School.