When Marlborough wrestled the Ranfurly Shield from Canterbury in 1973 Red Devils skipper Ramon Sutherland famously commented that perhaps the little top of the south province had grabbed “a tiger by the tail”.
Forty-six years later Ramon, now president of the Tasman Rugby Union, suggests the nation’s newest union may have done the same thing.
“I think we have got another [tiger by the tail] … it’s one thing to get there, now they have got to keep this standard up … but I’m sure they can,” he says.
On Saturday evening the Mako completed a perfect 12-from-12 season with a 31-14 win over Wellington in Nelson to claim the Mitre 10 Cup premiership title for the first time and underline their status as the country’s leading province.
Although Ramon has been surprised with the speed with which Tasman has risen to the top of the provincial tree, he says good coaching has been the key to success.
“Kieran Keane started it and it has carried on through Leon [MacDonald] and that’s why the improvement has been so fast.”
He feels the Mako’s win will do a lot of huge amount for the sport in the Marlborough/Nelson region.
“It shows that you don’t have to be a big city union to [win the premiership]. With the right encouragement and finances you can do it, but in a small area with a small population everyone has to do a lot of work.”
Although it is hard to compare achievements from different eras, Ramon suggested Tasman’s NPC win was “right up there” with Marlborough’s famous 1973-74 Ranfurly Shield era.
“Coming from a small area we have done exceptionally well.
“We have got some really talented players there and they are just going to get better,” he predicted.
Tasman chairman Wayne Young, like Ramon a former Red Devils player, said his immediate feeling after the final whistle on Saturday was “relief”.
“The way we had performed all year it would have been terrible not to get over the line tonight. Our defence was a huge factor.”
Wayne said the impetus for the team’s success began a few season’s back, under Leon MacDonald’s watch.
“He built a good culture which everyone has bought into, now we have just got to keep that momentum. It’s just providing that balance between our local players coming through and keeping our Super players on track, because we still have to provide a pathway for our young club players – it’s a balancing act.”
When Tasman ran out for their first NPC match, against North Harbour in 2006, they were led onto the park by hooker Ti’i Paulo.
Now based in Marlborough, Ti’i has experienced first-hand the unprecedented rise of the Mako.
After leading them in 2006, when they were very much an unknown quantity, he played 11 seasons in France, before rejoining the team in 2017, by which time the Mako were provincial powerhouses.
“To come back in 2017 was a real buzz for me … to see how far they had come was awesome.
“Thinking back when we first started, I wouldn’t have dreamed about them winning the whole thing, it’s a pretty proud moment.”
He says the most significant change he noticed was self-belief.
“That season  will stay in my memory … the whole club and union had shifted to have confidence in their ability. I felt that when I came back.”
Ti’i says the fact that just 10 years ago the national body was looking to cut the Mako, illustrates just how much grit the franchise had.
“Having that resilience to stay there and become a respected side was a massive positive.”
The fans also played an integral part in helping the Mako survive.
“Everyone just fell in love with the team and their relationship with supporters was always strong.”
He says a premiership title is a “fantastic reward” for the region.
“It will be massive for the both sides of the hill, everyone’s been waiting for them to lift that trophy.
“It makes me very proud to be a Mako.”