Tasman’s ascendance to the top rung of the New Zealand provincial ladder should come as no surprise to those who have followed the team’s fortunes in recent years.
Their star has been steadily rising, with the prospect of a breakthrough NPC premiership title seemingly only a matter of time.
And that time came on Saturday evening at Trafalgar Park when they dispatched a brave Wellington Lions side 31-14 to clinch perhaps the greatest “rags to riches” story in the annals of this country’s provincial rugby history.
Fifteen years ago the Tasman Mako were merely an idea, a concept that had merit but posed more questions than answers. Within 14 seasons, during which the nation’s newest union twice teetered on the edge of oblivion, they have established themselves as one of the powerhouses of our national game.
And there has been no magic wand, no special stairway to NPC heaven. It has taken determination, resilience and some astute management to get there.
Mako co-head coach Andrew Goodman has been a big part of the union’s success story, both as a player, then assistant coach to Leon MacDonald and co-head coach with Clarke Dermody this season.
Goodman said it had taken three or four seasons of hard work to get the team over the line.
“I want to say big thank you to all those guys outside the team who have had a big impact … one who comes immediately to mind is Leon for the influence he has had on Shane [Christie] and myself as young coaches.”
Tasman’s 12-from-12 charge to the title has been based around a fairly simple blueprint for success, a recipe that was repeated in the final.
“Wellington were never out of it, if one of those passes had stuck in the last 15 minutes it would have been a real tight finish,” said Goodman.
“But there was some great grit from our boys and the ‘Sparkies’ once again did a really good job. Tuli Paea came on at halftime and changed the game, Jacob Norris played awesome, Hugh Roach again, Uchi [Keisuke Uchida] for the last 15, Wyatt Crockett was amazing with two turnovers.
“We have trusted our bench a lot more this year because those guys have put their hands up at training every week.
“But it’s been a full squad effort … the whole management and coaching staff have been tireless, I’m just so proud of everyone.”
Just two players were involved during the union’s only previous successful NPC campaign, hard-nosed forwards Tim Perry and Liam Squire who, along with Jordan Taufua and Crockett, may have played their last game in the jersey.
Perry described the post-match feeling on Saturday as “unreal”.
“This is where it all started … it means a lot to me personally, [the coaches] gave me a crack and we won the second year I was here … we wanted to go to the top and we’ve finally done it, so it’s awesome to be a part of it.
“There have been a few ups and downs along the way … it hasn’t really sunk in yet. I couldn’t have done it with better bunch of men.”
Squire’s mind went back to another night, the 2014 premiership final loss to Taranaki in New Plymouth. “It’s good to redeem ourselves and get the job done this year, this feels awesome.
“The culture here is really something different, it’s a great tight-knit group and I can only see it growing with the talented young guys that are here.”
Asked if he will be back for another campaign Squire was unsure. “The body’s feeling a bit beaten up at the moment … that’s the dream, to come back, but there is also that feeling that this could have been my last game here in New Zealand.
“If that’s the case I couldn’t have asked for a better way to go out.”
Mako skipper David Havili was still trying to come to grips with his side’s achievements 15 minutes after the final whistle.
“I still can’t quite believe it … it’s quite raw at the moment.
“We have been building for this moment for a very long time, so to get over the line is just so good man, so good.
“There was both relief and excitement at the end, to put this little union on the map is bloody special.”
Havili boldly declared his loyalty for the province where he grew up and where he intends to remain.
“I’m definitely a Mako for life … I’m from the little town of Motueka and I won’t be leaving … but for now I think I’ll enjoy this for the next few days.”
The Tasman Rugby Union have had to fight ruin, relegation and dissolution to get to the top, their 14 years of existence marked by early battles to be accepted, then later struggles to become recognised as a major player on the national scene.
Saturday’s ascent to the top of the provincial tree capped one of New Zealand’s rugby’s most-astonishing rags-to-riches stories.
Here’s how it all panned out.
February 2005: Marlborough and Nelson Bays rugby stakeholders vote unanimously to support a joint venture bid to play in the Air New Zealand Cup
June 2005: A combined Marlborough, Nelson Bays side is accepted into the ANZC, providing grounds are upgraded
August 2005: Rugby manager Todd Blackadder, CEO Lee Germon and coach Dennis Brown named – Tasman name adopted
December 2005: Tasman officially becomes New Zealand’s newest provincial union.
July 2006: Lansdowne Park upgrade signed off. Makos play their first ANZC match at Lansdowne Park, against North Harbour. Finish season 12th with three wins.
January 2007: TRU borrow $600,000 to service $2.85m mortgage
October 2007: Tasman finish 11th in the NPC with two wins, Blackadder replaces Brown as Makos coach
February 2008: Peter Barr replaces Lee Germon as CEO
April 2008: TRU announce crippling $3.149m debt
July 2008: Marlborough District Council steps in and buys Lansdowne Park off the TRU for $3.45 million
August 2008: Tasman finish seventh in NPC, with four wins, however NZRU announce plans to dump Tasman and Northland from the ANZC in 2009.
September 2008: Tasman appeal to NZRU to remain in ANZC and are given a stay of execution, providing provinces resolve differences and present a sustainable budget for 2009
December 2008: Golden Edge and the Crusaders underwrite TRU for $300,000. MDC and NCC underwrite TRU for $75,000 – NZRU accepts Tasman back into the ANZC for 2009
February 2009: Kieran Keane and Bevan Cadwallader replace Blackadder as Makos coaches. The team finish ninth in the NPC, with six wins including victory over Auckland
July 2009: NZRU decide to return to 10-team competition. A ‘Save The Makos’ campaign is launched, backed by a petition signed by 14,000 fans and helps persuade the NZRU that a 14-team format should remain
July 2010: Leon MacDonald replaces Cadwallader as assistant coach, alongside Keane. The team finish 12th with four wins.
October 2011: The Makos finish 14th with just two wins.
October 2012: The tide turns. Makos make play-offs for the first time, winning five round robin games, but lose to Otago in semifinal. Andrew Flexman replaces Peter Barr as CEO.
October 2013: Makos win 10 of the 12 matches, take out the ITM Cup championship by beating Hawke’s Bay at Trafalgar Park and are promoted to the premiership division
October 2014: Makos reach ITM Cup premiership final, winning eight of their 12 matches, then lose a thrilling final to Taranaki in New Plymouth. Tony Lewis replaces Andrew Flexman as CEO.
October 2015: Mako win seven of their 11 games, lose semifinal to Auckland.
October 2016: Leon MacDonald replaces Keane as head coach. Tasman win eight from 12, losing to Canterbury in the final.
October 2017: After winning seven from their 12 matches, Tasman reach another final, losing again to Canterbury in Christchurch. The Makos officially change their name to The Tasman Mako
October 2018: Another top season, winning nine from 11 games but slipping at the penultimate hurdle, beaten in the semifinal by Canterbury.
November 2018: Andrew Goodman and Clarke Dermody replace MacDonald as co-head coaches
October 2019: The Tasman Mako – the nation’s champion rugby province!