Union chief vows Magpies will be back
Somewhere south of Auckland, there's probably still one or two folk toasting Counties-Manukau's promotion to next year's NPC premiership.
The faces remain a little longer in Hawke's Bay, though.
The Magpies are the team the Steelers replace in domestic rugby's top provincial echelon for 2013, following a disastrous campaign in which they lost seven of their 10 matches, including Ranfurly Shield challenges against Taranaki and Waikato.
Promoted to the premiership a year ago, Hawke's Bay rarely looked at home in the elite company this season. But, despite his union's relegation, Hawke's Bay Rugby Union chief executive Mike Bishop is adamant that the premiership is where they truly belong.
"What we did this year wasn't good enough and the players, the coaches, ourselves, sponsors and fans are all aware of that. There'll be a lot of hard work go into ensuring that we bounce straight back next year," Bishop said.
People have their theories about why the Magpies struggled this year, with the decision not to reappoint Peter Russell as head coach being one of the more popular ones. Cantabrian Craig Philpott was hired in his place and he and rookie assistant Danny Lee endured a difficult initiation.
But rather than new voices in charge, the team's issue was their past success, Bishop said.
Seventeen of last year's NPC championship-winning squad moved on in the offseason, 13 of them to overseas clubs.
"And this year, of course, was the first year where Super Rugby finished and ITM Cup started immediately and that affected us as well," Bishop said.
"Previously we'd had a four or five-week gap where they could get a decent break and refresh and we didn't have that this year. We were relying on those players to produce pretty much straight away and some of them struggled really - mentally and physically.
"I'd also suggest that it's more difficult for unions such as ourselves that have players playing Super Rugby right across the country. Whereas, the top three or four have the vast majority, if not all, of their Super Rugby players staying in the same town as they're in.
"By way of example, our first game of the ITM Cup this year was the first time our starting 15 had ever played together. Of the Auckland team we played against, 21 of those 22 guys had just spent eight months together in the Blues."
Prop Ben Tameifuna was one of the strugglers Bishop mentioned. A Super Rugby winner with the Chiefs, Tameifuna eventually couldn't even crack the Magpies' match-day 22.
But the biggest issue was that Hawke's Bay simply couldn't absorb the departure overseas of seasoned campaigners like Sona Taumalolo, Kane Thompson, Bryn Evans and Kahn Fotuali'i.
"Well, no union would. I'd strongly suggest that if 17 of this year's Canterbury team left, they'd struggle to win a sixth title," Bishop said.
What Hawke's Bay have been able to sustain, though, is a strong financial footing. Bishop said the union would "record a pretty solid profit again", making it 16 years since they posted a loss.
Despite the flat form of the team this year, crowds at McLean Park were just under 8000 on average. Bishop said gate receipts did not figure hugely in the union's budgeting.
He added that there was no secret to their financial success. They simply worked out how much commercial revenue they could generate each year and spent less than that.
"We always run a contingency within that, so there's a bit of a cushion in case we have an unexpected hiccup. We haven't really had that up to now and have been able to plan reasonably solidly."
The Dominion Post