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