Tasman rugby making strides on and off the field

HAMISH BIDWELL
Last updated 18:35 03/09/2014
YOU BEAUTY: Tasman fullback James Lowe raises his arms as lock Joe Wheeler goes over for an early try during the Makos round one victory over Hawke's Bay in this year's NPC.
Derek Flynn / The Marlborough Express

YOU BEAUTY: Tasman fullback James Lowe raises his arms as lock Joe Wheeler goes over for an early try during the Makos round one victory over Hawke's Bay in this year's NPC.

FINS UP: Tasman first five-eighth Marty Banks celebrates in true Makos fashion after going over for a try.
Derek Flynn / The Marlborough Express
FINS UP: Tasman first five-eighth Marty Banks celebrates in true Makos fashion after going over for a try.

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They're rather proud, down Tasman way.

Not a lot was expected of New Zealand's newest union, when they were promoted to provincial rugby's top tier for 2014.

The product of an arranged, and not always happy in the early years, marriage between Marlborough and Nelson Bays, the Makos are becoming the team they always hoped they might.

Wins over championship sides Hawke's Bay and Bay of Plenty got this year's campaign off on a good note, before Sunday's 16-16 draw with Auckland at Eden Park. On Friday it's Waikato that come to Nelson's Trafalgar Park.

In-fighting and financial strife were among the union's teething problems.

A home grown team that regularly contends for, and wins, the NPC's premiership title is what they imagine for their future.

''Over 60 per cent of our team went to school in the area and that's significant,'' Tasman Rugby Union chief executive Tony Lewis said.

The reason that matters to Lewis is that it indicates the strengthening of the Makos brand, that's occurred since their inception in 2006.

In the last two years the union lost 10 of their better secondary school leavers to other unions.

When school goes out for 2014 all but one leaver from the Nelson College and Marlborough Boys' College first XVs will be going into the Tasman academy system.

''That's the first time we've been able to keep them all in Nelson or Blenheim, except for one player going to Waikato,'' said Lewis.

That suits the sense of parochialism they're trying to build in Makos country.

''We're working really, really hard to keep our home grown talent and will continue to. Our coaches [Kieran Keane and Leon MacDonald] are home grown, they're both born-and-bred Tasman people, from Marlborough obviously, who bring that pride and passion.''

Making Nelson Bays' and Marlborough's history Tasman's too, has been another area Lewis has worked on.

It's all very well for Marlborough to be remembered for taking the Ranfurly Shield off Canterbury in 1973, but not so good if that union is now defunct.

''Well, we now have the Tasman Red Devils and the Tasman Griffins who play in the South Island B competition, so we've re-established the Red Devils' programme, which is now 10 games a season,'' Lewis said.

''The life members from both areas are now Tasman life members, the Blenheim office is now a Tasman Rugby Union office. Last year when we had the [30-year] reunion of the guys from the Canterbury Ranfurly Shield game, the Tasman team played in Red Devils jumpers.''

Lewis played on the wing for his home province, Otago, between 1981 and 1987 and is adamant that to support a team, fans need to be able to identify with them first.

''I was in Auckland last weekend to watch us play and I compare that to the [crowd of] 4500 we had in Blenheim to watch our first game [this season] against Hawke's Bay.

"The ground was packed and had probably the best atmosphere in the NPC this year and there was hardly a spare seat or spare blade of grass.

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''It's very easy to fill because it's a small boutique ground and it's much harder in Nelson. We've got a ground that holds 15,000 and we'll be busting our bums to get 6000 in here [on Friday].''

But that won't stop them trying.

- Stuff

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