Provincial pride; regularly touted, increasingly difficult to define.
The far-reaching tentacles of professionalism are often bemoaned for suffocating passion of the amateur era.
Money is the source of all evil; players don’t ooze the same love for the game anymore, some suggest.
The reality is quite different.
New Zealand rugby pathways may no longer follow a singular local focus. Kids are signed before fully grown. Emerging players are happy to take any opportunities that come their way – no matter which region it arrives.
That doesn’t mean identity and pride can’t be created and harnessed in similar ways to previous generations, though.
For the first time in 34 years, New Zealand’s premier domestic competition wasn’t won by a major city centre this year. Taranaki’s success was the first in this regard since Manawatu’s in 1980. The ‘Naki weren’t alone in their rise, either.
Ending Canterbury’s six-year reign was significant. It produced a rebirth. Fans may not have flocked to grounds on mid-week winter nights – more family-friendly afternoon kickoffs would help – but interest around the water cooler and at the local pub in this year’s domestic competition was immense, predominately due to the combined competitiveness of the smaller unions.
Everyone, after all, loves an underdog.
There were no shortage of fairy-tales. Manawatu secured their first trophy of any kind in 34 years, earning promotion to the top-tier division. Tasman went within a few minutes, or more accurate goal-kicking, of taking out the Premiership. Hawke’s Bay held onto the coveted Ranfurly Shield for the summer. After winning eight of their last 42 games before this season, North Harbour took three scalps and, more importantly, appeared to turn the corner under new coach Steve Jackson.
Usual suspects Wellington, Auckland and Canterbury, who had contested the last two finals, were forced to watch others take centre stage. Refreshing indeed.
Perhaps those Super Rugby bases were, this season at least, guilty of not embracing the same passion as their counterparts. That certainly seemed the case as Tasman dominated Canterbury twice and Taranaki blew away Auckland with three tries in their extra-time semi-final.
Next year’s response from the perennial big boys will be interesting to observe.
The fact Taranaki had just eight locally-born players and 22 from outside the rural farming and surfing community highlights what can be achieved with collective pride. Recruiting the right mix of talent is only half the job; technical and tactical nous will only get you so far.
From the baggage man to the captain, everyone must buy into the team-first mentality. Everyone must be willing to bleed for the cause.
The ’Naki proved originating from a certain area is not a perquisite for adopting passion for the people, jersey and team-mates.
When Auckland prop Angus Ta’avao was hoisted onto the shoulders of adoring locals who rushed onto the field at the end of the fitting final in New Plymouth, do you think for a moment he regretted his move this season?
It’s a safe bet Ta’avao never experienced anything comparable in his previous rugby career. Such scenes are a rarity. Crowds aren’t allowed on the field in Auckland, Wellington or Christchurch.
*At Super Rugby level the Chiefs also proved by forming a non-negotiable identity you can replicate provincial pride. Their team is very much a collection of wide-spread talent, selected after research on each individual’s character and work-rate.
Ultimately, though, their recent success is built on creating a connection with the region and its people, predominantly through Maoridom. Pre-season activities – staying over on local maraes and biking through small towns – are developed with this in mind. Fitness is a mere by-product of these inclusive events. Knowing who you are playing for, and embracing what your jersey represents, gives meaning and motivation well beyond the scoreboard.
Results were telling. After making the playoffs twice in 17 years, the Chiefs claimed back-to-back titles in 2012 and ’13.
Of course, there’s no one blueprint.
Tasman’s captivating flamboyance benefitted greatly from their local talent. Liam Squire, Shane Christie, Joe Wheeler, Marty Banks, James Lowe and Tom Marshall were all integral in their underdog surge to the final after being promoted the previous year. The core of their team has been three years in the making.
The beauty of success from smaller unions is it spreads the spotlight. Manawatu – promoters of All Blacks halves pairing Aaron Smith and Aaron Cruden – this year threw up Nehe Milner-Skudder, a fullback who possesses the skills to be an All Black within two years, and classic second five-eighth Hamish Northcott.
Taranaki also showcased powerful centre Seta Tamanivalu. What a scary midfield combination he could form with Sonny Bill Williams at the Chiefs next year.
Former Crusaders, All Blacks and Wallabies coach Robbie Deans made the point recently that the major difference separating Australian and New Zealand rugby were the development systems and what players went back to following Super Rugby.
This season should only emphasise that message to the New Zealand Rugby Union, who, not so long ago, attempted to axe Manawatu, Tasman, Counties Manukau and Northland.
Provincial pride – in its various forms – is, indeed, New Zealand rugby’s greatest strength.
Do you coach at a local rugby club, how does pride and passion contribute to your team’s success?