Heart­land’s rugby fairytale

As the pro­fes­sional game rules the roost, Thames Val­ley’s win evoked a pas­sion for grass­roots rugby, writes Joseph Pear­son.

Waikato Times - - Weekend -

There was a giddy ex­cite­ment among those draped in Thames Val­ley’s gold and scar­let when a wob­bly kick into touch was fol­lowed by ec­stasy as the fi­nal whis­tle sounded on one un­for­get­table, sunny Satur­day in late Oc­to­ber.

Bed­lam broke out on the field as Thames Val­ley’s loyal and loud band of fa­nat­i­cal sup­port­ers cel­e­brated their beloved rugby team’s great­est achieve­ment since the union was formed in 1922.

The Swamp Foxes have typ­i­cally been stuck in the mud when chas­ing suc­cess in the na­tional pro­vin­cial cham­pi­onship (NPC) and it’s con­tin­ued to elude them since the com­pe­ti­tion was re­formed to the Heart­land Cham­pi­onship in 2006.

But 2018 will for­ever be re­mem­bered as Thames Val­ley’s year af­ter Chilean dairy farmer Ser­gio de la Fuente scored the win­ning try to clinch their 17-12 vic­tory in the Meads Cup fi­nal against South Can­ter­bury at Ti­maru’s Alpine En­ergy Sta­dium.

Thames Val­ley fear­lessly closed out the fi­nal stages of a tense decider with one of their re­place­ments, 38-year-old Lance Eas­ton, pack­ing down for a suc­ces­sion of dom­i­nant scrums af­ter his un­usual tran­si­tion from an eva­sive out­side back to pow­er­ful prop at the start of the sea­son.

Writ­ten off as rank $81 out­siders to be­come Heart­land cham­pi­ons, Eas­ton’s story is one of many chap­ters that il­lus­trate Thames Val­ley’s fairytale as they won their first pro­vin­cial ti­tle since 1995.

Eas­ton, the squad’s most capped player, was ap­par­ently flat­tened in his first scrum in pre-sea­son but, come the fi­nal just months later, the vet­eran was lead­ing the pack in re­peat­edly shunt­ing back South Can­ter­bury.

Such a change of po­si­tions is hard to grasp when the com­pe­ti­tion’s me­dia guide listed Eas­ton at 90kg and fel­low prop Si­tiveni Tupou at 150kg – twice the weight of Chiefs half­back Brad We­ber – but, as Thames Val­ley head coach Matt Bartleet re­veals, he was ca­pa­ble of mak­ing the switch.

‘‘He’s an in­ter­est­ing guy,’’ Bartleet said. ‘‘He once chose to do a 14-day fast. No food, just wa­ter. If you can do that – the abil­ity to mas­ter your mind and your body – then he could def­i­nitely make the tran­si­tion from an out­side back to a prop.’’

Eas­ton in­creased his weight but was still sig­nif­i­cantly lighter than Thames Val­ley’s other props: Te Huia Ku­tia (130kg), de la Fuente (135kg) and Tupou.

In fact, Bartleet re­calls Tupou hop­ping on the scales ear­lier in the sea­son when the mea­sure­ment reached 150kg and just read er­ror.

But also be­hind Thames Val­ley’s his­toric tri­umph was a com­mu­nity pulling to­gether to sup­port their team and the play­ers re­sponded.

There was team chef Chris­tine Wis­newski – known as ‘‘Mama Bear’’ – who promised pud­ding af­ter train­ings on Thurs­day pro­vid­ing the team won the pre­vi­ous Satur­day.

One tav­ern in Waihi is said to have thrown a con­sid­er­able amount of money be­hind the team shock­ing peren­nial cham­pi­ons Wan­ganui in the semi­fi­nal on the road, which they did, and $19,340 was raised in sup­port of Gold­fields School, a spe­cial needs school in Paeroa, when the play­ers wore char­ity jer­seys bear­ing the hand­prints of stu­dents dur­ing a Heart­land match against Horowhenua-Ka¯ piti in Oc­to­ber.

But the eu­phoric scenes at full­time in Ti­maru cap­tured per­fectly the pas­sion for the ama­teur game when a team is deeply rooted in its com­mu­nity.

Grown men were sob­bing on the turf as those sup­port­ing the Swamp Foxes in­vaded the pitch to swarm their he­roes as Thames Val­ley savoured their fourth pro­vin­cial ti­tle af­ter win­ning the NPC’s old third divi­sion in 1988, 1990 and 1995.

Some of the play­ers were still wear­ing their full kit when jump­ing on the plane a lit­tle worse for wear the fol­low­ing morn­ing, while oth­ers were due at work on Mon­day.

Like all Heart­land teams, Thames Val­ley’s play­ers are not paid, but ba­sic ex­penses – namely travel – are cov­ered. Still, the Heart­land Cham­pi­onship’s fu­ture is un­cer­tain given the well­doc­u­mented de­cline of grass­roots rugby.

Rugby hasn’t looked back since turn­ing pro­fes­sional in 1995 and the pro­vin­cial game is now in­creas­ingly de­pen­dent on money the All Blacks gen­er­ate so the com­pe­ti­tions stay afloat.

The All Blacks have pros­pered, win­ning the last two World Cups, and their ‘‘brand’’ is now an im­age recog­nised glob­ally, but fears for Heart­land rugby linger.

For­mer All Blacks se­lec­tor Ross Cooper has long been as­so­ci­ated with Thames Val­ley, liv­ing in Waihi dur­ing spells of coach­ing and play­ing for the Swamp Foxes, with the for­mer Chiefs coach now on the union’s board.

Cooper, who ad­mit­ted he was emo­tional when Thames Val­ley cap­tured the ti­tle, said it was vi­tal for the Heart­land unions to stay alive.

‘‘I’m in the group that fight like hell for Heart­land rugby. When you look through all the teams in New Zealand, es­pe­cially with women’s rugby up and run­ning, I would be dev­as­tated if they don’t keep it go­ing.

‘‘I hear talk ev­ery now and again that the Heart­land [Cham­pi­onship] is go­ing to fall over. New Zealand Rugby would suf­fer on mul­ti­ple fronts [be­cause] lit­tle clubs in places like Waihi, Paeroa and Whi­tianga would have noth­ing to do.

‘‘The fab­ric of those com­mu­ni­ties re­volve around those lit­tle towns. I plead that it con­tin­ues and I’m sure it will. We’re wary but peo­ple want to sup­port it, but it comes down to fi­nances.’’

Mean­while, head coach Bartleet, a for­mer prop who mas­ter­minded their suc­cess af­ter tak­ing charge last year, is more op­ti­mistic.

‘‘I feel like the Heart­land Cham­pi­onship has been through its worst time,’’ he said. ‘‘There was a time when ev­ery neigh­bour­ing club player from Mitre 10 Cup unions was so neg­a­tive and dis­dain­ful about Heart­land rugby, like ‘why would you bother?’

‘‘But that has changed; that’s moved on. There’s now a real level of in­ter­est for play­ers [who] haven’t made a pro­fes­sional team to give Heart­land rugby a go.’’

Thames Val­ley CEO Ed­mond Leahy said ‘‘you could give your­self a headache try­ing to spec­u­late’’ on the fu­ture and high­lighted the joy among their fans when the ti­tle was won.

‘‘All the CEOs be­lieve it’s got a healthy fu­ture. We would far rather fo­cus on the here and now and what we do know about.

‘‘It’s still a core part of New Zealand rugby. In the ru­ral com­mu­ni­ties, where it’s played, it’s vi­tal. It’s a big deal in the Heart­land unions and, I guess with the level of in­ter­est that’s been gen­er­ated this year, it’s quite ob­vi­ous to me, na­tion­ally, that Heart­land rugby is still a huge part of the rugby land­scape.

‘‘New Zealand rugby sup­port­ers tend to be guarded and re­served when it comes to ex­press­ing how they feel, but there was no hold­ing back af­ter the fi­nal whis­tle went.’’

No 8 Alex Bradley’s ca­reer, which in­cluded spells in the pro­fes­sional game with Waikato (2009-12) and the Chiefs (2012), fin­ished with Thames Val­ley win­ning the Meads Cup.

The 37-year-old joined the Swamp Foxes in 2017 and he said their suc­cess epit­o­mised why the Heart­land Cham­pi­onship was so good.

‘‘One thing that I’ve found, es­pe­cially with this bunch of guys from the Val­ley, is that when you take pro­fes­sion­al­ism out of it, they’re there be­cause they want to be there.

‘‘And they’re there for the love of the game. It feels like such a good en­vi­ron­ment to be in. There wasn’t a train­ing that no­body didn’t want to go to. Ev­ery­one wanted to be there and be a part of it.’’

The Swamp Foxes fin­ished 4th to reach the Meads Cup semi­fi­nals for the first time since the Heart­land Cham­pi­onship was formed and it fol­lowed a pe­riod of more than two decades when the team en­joyed scant suc­cess, in­clud­ing a 17-match los­ing streak from 2003-05 and a spell from 2007-09 when they man­aged only one win from 20 matches.

Af­ter dis­ap­point­ing fin­ishes of 9th, 10th, 11th and 9th in the 14-team com­pe­ti­tion from 2014-17, Thames Val­ley’s 2018 sea­son was al­ready deemed a suc­cess when they hit the road for their semi­fi­nal in Wan­ganui, who were seek­ing their fourth con­sec­u­tive ti­tle af­ter top­ping the ta­ble.

Thames Val­ley had tasted de­feat in their pre­vi­ous nine matches against the reign­ing Heart­land cham­pi­ons in a los­ing streak stretch­ing back to 2001 and the Swamp Foxes hadn’t won in Wan­ganui since 1988.

Seek­ing in­spi­ra­tion, the play­ers be­gan their own ren­di­tion of the Wolf of Wall Street chant – an idea Bartleet had pushed de­spite ear­lier reser­va­tions from the squad’s lead­ers – and bang­ing their chests while shout­ing down the chang­ing rooms worked won­ders as Thames Val­ley won 17-7.

They re­peated the chant for the fi­nal in South Can­ter­bury, who fin­ished the sea­son sec­ond, and it gal­vanised the Swamp Foxes to over­turn a 12-3 half­time deficit, scor­ing 14 unan­swered points to pre­vail as un­der­dogs for the sec­ond week run­ning.

Thames Val­ley’s win earned na­tional ac­claim as they were nom­i­nated for the na­tional team of the year award at the New Zealand Rugby Awards next Thurs­day, while de la Fuente was called up to Chile’s squad tack­ling New Zealand Ma¯ ori in Las Con­des last month.

How­ever, the burly prop didn’t fly out to Chile be­cause he was al­ready com­mit­ted to work­ing through the calv­ing pe­riod.

Thames Val­ley’s vic­tory was par­tic­u­larly spe­cial for pres­i­dent, his­to­rian and for­mer CEO Kelly Plum­mer, who has fol­lowed the team’s for­tunes since he was a ball boy when the Swamp Foxes hosted North Auck­land in 1958.

‘‘It’s like a great big, sleep­ing gi­ant out there, wait­ing for some­thing like this to hap­pen,’’ he said.

A Ranfurly Shield chal­lenge in Otago awaits next year but Thames Val­ley can savour the sum­mer on top of the world af­ter evok­ing a burn­ing pas­sion for grass­roots rugby.


Thames Val­ley's Te Aroha home ground, Boyd Park, be­neath Mt Te Aroha.

Thames Val­ley shocked South Can­ter­bury to win this sea­son's Heart­land Cham­pi­onship.


Thames Val­ley's Matt Fisher, Reece Broughton and Matthew Abra­ham toast­ing their vic­tory in South Can­ter­bury.


Thames Val­ley prop Si­tiveni Tupou at­tempts to shake off West Coast de­fend­ers.


No 8 Alex Bradley ended his ca­reer af­ter win­ning the Meads Cup with Thames Val­ley.


Thames Val­ley head coach Matt Bartleet and cap­tain Brett Ranga.


Thames Val­ley CEO Ed­mond Leahy says the fu­ture is healthy.


Pres­i­dent and his­to­rian Kelly Plum­mer: a fol­lower since 1958.

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