The Mitre 10 Cup may be residing in the Tasman Rugby Union’s trophy cabinet, but Marlborough and Nelson’s coming together to form a successful top of the south rugby entity has been the highlight of the past few years, according to union chief executive Tony Lewis.
“Over the past six years Marlborough and Nelson have come together as one, that’s been the high point for me.
“And you see the kids, they want to be Mako, they don’t want to be a Griffin, they don’t want to be a Red Devil … I think some of the young kids don’t even know what they are.
“We are just one proud provincial union.”
In just 14 seasons Tasman have risen from competition newbies to NPC champions, an amazingly short time frame.
“It’s even more amusing,” said Lewis, “when you think that it wasn’t so long ago that they were going to kick us out [of the NPC] … then over the last six years we have just built this group of players.
“I remember when we had just four Super Rugby players, now we have got 20-plus Super players. And people want to come and play for us because we have this culture.”
Lewis suggested building from within was the key to success over the past six seasons.
“Kieran [Keane] got the team up into the premiership, then he left a good legacy for Leon [MacDonald], who built it further, then left a good legacy for Andrew [Goodman], Clarke [Dermody] and Shane [Christie].
“It has just created a momentum.
“The key is that when the people had the concept of ‘let’s have a team in the top of the south’ it was to keep people in the region plus attract people to the region. When you look out there [at the 2019 squad] and you see the number of ex-First XV players from the region who are involved, the number of players who have come through our club system … it’s just incredible.”
He cited the fact that, of the 23 Mako players who contested the play-offs, Isaac Salmon, Fetuli Paea, Te Ahirawu Cirikidaveta, Sione Havili, Jacob Norris and Tim O’Malley played club rugby in 2019. Wyatt Crockett, Salmon, Quinten Strange, Ethan Blackadder, Leicester Fainga’anuku and David Havili attended Nelson College.
In the wider squad, Atu and Sam Moli plus Braden Stewart went to Marlborough Boys’ College, while Tima Fainga’anuku was a former Nelson College stand-out.
“Another thing we have taken upon ourselves in the last few years is to, where possible, grow our own coaches,” said Lewis. “We had Kieran and Leon, then Andrew and Shane, both former captains, then Gray Cornelius. So if we can keep on growing our own, then that’s our number one.”
“The key now is building on that, and how we go about that. The biggest problem we will have is if we get a bit complacent about success.”
He was naturally delighted for the Tasman players who put together a ‘perfect’ 12-from-12 winning season, capping it with their 31-14 premiership victory over Wellington on Saturday, but suggested they battled for everything that came their way.
“When I looked out at the final I had this vision that unless you earned the win you were never going to get the win, and you saw them earning that win. Whether it was Will Jordan or Finlay Christie chasing a guy down, they worked and earned everything they got and they deserved the lot.”
He had his own unique view of the Tasman alliance.
“I always thought of it as an ‘arranged marriage’ … you hold hands for the first couple of years and now we are passionately kissing each other and the honeymoon is all on.”
Lewis said the scenes after the final victory summed up the situation.
“This result will go through the top of the south … there are people from Blenheim hugging those from Nelson, it’s just an outstanding result for the whole region.”