As they set out to capture the essence of Tainui's historical journey, the Chiefs embraced the culture of their region this week, laying solid foundations to defend the Super Rugby title.
Over 800 years ago, one of New Zealand’s largest Maori tribes voyaged across the Pacific from East Polynesia to Aotearoa in hand-built wakas.
Legend has it Tainui landed near Opotiki and travelled around the east coast of New Zealand, eventually arriving in Kawhia Harbour.
After shedding blood, sweat and lactic acid build-up to get there, the Chiefs paddled double-hulled wakas into that same harbour on Friday, finishing an arduous two-day torture test which connected with the past, the land, the people and the sea they will represent this season.
''We could spend these two days on the rugby field making sure everything is in place, but team building, bonding and things with personal meaning are really important to us,'' coach Dave Rennie said. ''The cultural side is really important to us. It’s a chance to engage with our region. It’s been a valuable experience.''
Players were kept in the dark about this unique examination of mental and physical resolve, dubbed the Coast to Coast. Only the start and end point were clear.
''We knew we were going from one side to the other,'' co-captain Craig Clarke said.
Players, and management, made their way from Waihi beach to Kawhia by foot, bikes, kayaks – and partly by car – in an effort to retrace Tainui’s spiritual journey, pushing their bodies to the limit over eight gruelling events in the process.
By the end of day one, after running, swimming and carrying team-mates at Waihi, biking over 40km through Paeora, past the iconic L&P bottle, and, finally, racing 4.5km up Mt Te Aroha in wild conditions, matchsticks were needed to keep eyes open for the evening hangi feast.
''The toughest event was probably racing up Mt Te Aroha at the end of day one after doing the beach event in Waihi and a lot of biking,'' Clarke said. ''It was pretty tough going.''
Along the way, a 70m swing bridge was crossed, a gorge conquered and a bomb contest held, as players were split into four competing marae groups – Pukawa, Ranginui, Te Puea and Turangawaewae. They slept on old mattresses, enjoyed two wholesome hangis, were gratefully hosted and bonded as a team throughout the collective, physical suffering.
''It’s a bit different having everyone, especially the snorers, in the room,'' Clarke chuckled. ''It’s about spending time with the lads and getting to know each other and at the same time seeing the land and people that we represent.''
That same, tight bond was a crucial component in the Chiefs’ breakthrough success last year, as Rennie, Tom Coventry and Wayne Smith led a bunch of largely unheralded men to the franchise’s first title. Cleary, they are not content.
Culture is a term often banded about in sport; a more apt description, particularly in rugby, is camaraderie. If you are prepared to work relentlessly for the bloke inside you, half the job is complete.
Last year, Rennie showed similar intuitive foresight to think outside the box during the preseason. His men hitchhiked from Hamilton through Cambridge, Rotorua, Tauranga and Te Puke to Ohope. But they didn’t explore the Coromandel.
After this trip, they are once again familiar with the significance of their wider region.
Those memories, Tainui’s spirit and the marae mana will be carried into this season.
''We seem tighter already,'' Clarke said. ''A couple of the lads mentioned they feel more apart of the team now we’ve done the event. That was what we were after.''
Starting points don’t come much better.
- Sunday Star Times
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