New Northland rugby head coach John Leslie excited by team’s DNA

John Leslie doesn’t consider himself a big-stick guy or egotistical. He’s heading to Northland to empower the Taniwha to play at their full potential, win matches and get their fans through the turnstiles, wherever they play in the upcoming Bunnings Warehouse NPC competition.

The former Scotland and Highlanders centre is the new Northland rugby head coach and, like his predecessors, he is relishing the challenge of coaching in a region where he has only played once. That was for Otago against Northland at the then-Okara Park sometime in the 90s.

Now he’s preparing his journey from the Deep South to the Winterless North and starts in his new role next month. It’s the DNA of the Northland team that excites him.

The oldest son of former All Blacks’ captain Andy Leslie, he replaces Marty Veale who resigned last month due to family reasons after only months as the head coach.


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John Leslie is undaunted by the time between now and the NPC starting in August. “The short time will only sharpen things up. Sometimes when one has been in an environment longer, it creates confusion in terms of how they want to do things and how to get there.

“We don’t want that confusion. I am not a big-stick guy, I am not a guy with an ego. My immediate priority is to connect with the players and the leadership group and set expectations and culture around how we go together.

“Taniwha, for so long, has been a bit of an underdog. Don’t get me wrong. The team has had peaks and troughs but now we’ve got the squad for it and we’ll throw some punches and go as far as we can.”

New Northland rugby head coach John Leslie is excited by the depth in the squad ahead of the NPC season starting in August. Photo / Michael Cunningham
New Northland rugby head coach John Leslie is excited by the depth in the squad ahead of the NPC season starting in August. Photo / Michael Cunningham

Leslie said former Highlanders’ mentor Jamie Joseph has given him tips on things to focus on in readiness for the NPC campaign.


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He has had a number of coaching stints in Otago since retiring from rugby in 2004. His most recent role as the head coach for Southern RFC in Dunedin has seen the team make remarkable strides, with their current season in progress showing great promise.

In Otago, Leslie guided Southern RFC to the Dunedin Premier Club Championship, solidifying their position as the best club in the region last year. His coaching tenure with the Otago Under 19s resulted in an undefeated season, clinching the South Island Championship.

Prior to his successful coaching career, Leslie enjoyed a remarkable playing career that spanned multiple continents.

He captained the Otago University RFC, Otago, the Highlanders, and the New Zealand Universities side. His achievements include four Dunedin Premier Club Championships and two NZR National Championships.

Leslie also qualified for Scotland through his paternal grandfather.

He made his international debut in 1998 against South Africa and scored his first international try just 12 seconds after kick-off. Leslie went on to play for Scotland in the 5 Nations tournament and subsequently played for the team for four years, raking up 23 caps.

Leslie was alerted to the vacancy for a Northland head coach by former playing mates and felt he would be a good fit for the role.

“There’s a heck of a lot of potential in that playing squad and I am looking forward to knowing the players and being a part of a great environment. There’s a rich history and a deep community involvement which I really like.

Northland had an impressive run during last year’s NPC campaign when the Taniwha took a few scalps, notably beating Auckland at home and taming the Wellington Lions in Porirua.

The team lost to Canterbury in the quarter-finals in Christchurch. This year’s NPC will see Northland hosting Canterbury on August 5, in what will be a rematch of last year’s quarter-final, and Taranaki four days later, both at Semenoff Stadium in Whangārei.


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The Cambridge Blue boys then travel to Southland to defend the Peter Hetaraka Te Tai Trophy against the Stags in Invercargill, before hosting Tasman Makos in Whangārei on August 19.

Northland’s remaining home games will be against Hawke’s Bay on September 1 and Bay of Plenty on September 22.

Unlike last season, when Northland travelled to Christchurch, Wellington, Nelson, and Taranaki, this year, the team will have more time to recover.

Its away games are in Albany against North Harbour, Palmerston North and Dunedin.

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