Positive change for Eltham-Kaponga
Five months after being booted off their home ground, Eltham-Kaponga will be represented at Taranaki club rugby finals day. Glenn McLean finds out a bit about their season and how their coach has handled it.
A turbulent and frustrating start to the season might just be forgotten tomorrow afternoon if Eltham-Kaponga manage to get up and win the division one title.
After battling unsuccessfully with the South Taranaki District Council to keep one of their home grounds at Eltham's Taumata Park, the combined side have made the final against New Plymouth Old Boys.
While being booted off your own patch by the local football club put a spanner in the works, the team has still enjoyed a reasonable following at their new surroundings at Taylor Park, as well as their other home ground at Kaponga.
Things might be radically different from the 1980s, when Eltham regularly challenged for the province's top spot, but the town, like the club, has undoubtedly changed.
"The whole dynamic of the town has," Eltham-Kaponga co-coach Rawiri Mako said this week.
"Saturday is no longer a day off. I don't know how many jobs there are in the town but I think it's the most employed town in the southern hemisphere."
Although the change has been dramatic, Mako has been a constant, 30 years after he first pulled on the Eltham jersey as a player.
He freely admits the saga over Taumata Park had hurt him personally, but he draws some positivity from the fact that they had enjoyed an influx of new players.
"We still don't know how we are going to sustain it, but we've had a couple of boys come from Okaiawa, a couple of boys are working for Tony Arnold, so he's sent them up here," he said.
"We're still a young team. Ian Austin came back and played for us and he might be 35 or 36 but the majority of them are under 25."
Mako described the squad as a casual crew, so much so he gave up his pre-game speeches in about the third week of the season, while Mako's co-coach James Cookson does not venture into the changing shed.
"In their own way they are serious about the footy but it's not my way. I've had to do most of the adapting and you just try and work it out. They've been great, really."
The introduction of a Monday night meal has got the players to training each week.
"I think the least we have had training has been this week, and we had 16, the rest were injured.
"They still came along but it [the meal] should not be the priority, training should be the priority, but there are expectations from them what they should be eating.
"‘Is it not steak tonight Ra?' They ask that, but it's been fun. Like, I'm too old for the bus but I'm the bus monitor. They all want to have a few beers and I'm waiting to get home. Those have been challenges for me."
Another challenge for the former Taranaki assistant coach has been dividing his time between rugby and coaching the Stratford premier two netball team.
It was a role he thought he would be focusing on in 2014 until Brent Perrett took up an offer to co-coach the Spotswood United premier division team, leaving Mako scrambling to find a replacement for Eltham-Kaponga.
"I spent three weeks trying to find someone and we got James Cookson, and I said I would help because I want to play golf. That's what I want to do. I'd said I'd never miss a practice, but I might miss the odd game.
"But you know what it gets like, you get tied up in it. There have also been the challenges of getting out of here [Taumata Park] because this is our home. But the guys haven't seen it as a challenge, it's just been normal for them because we can train here and train out at Kaponga."
The bitterness of leaving Taumata Park remains evident for him, however, although he was further encouraged that the club still had three junior teams running around on Saturday morning.
He believes he could argue for a switch back to the park being a rugby ground, given their numbers, although he holds no optimism for change.
"Councils don't make decisions annually, they make them for a generation. It will be a generation before we get back here, and I'll be playing golf next year."
Tomorrow's final has the hallmarks of being a close encounter, especially when you look back at the regular season matches between the two. Eltham-Kaponga won the first, 22-19, while Old Boys got their revenge 15-13 in the second.
Captained by Fabian Rupapera, Eltham-Kaponga have six or seven players who Mako believed could step up and handle premier rugby.
That in itself provided Mako with a quandary because he would like to see some of them playing at a higher level, but he did not want Eltham-Kaponga to simply be a feeder club.
"It comes back to how do we sustain it? I don't want to be a senior thirds club. . . . I don't want that for Eltham and I don't want that for Kaponga, either. We've got too many of them dotted around, and if you take Kaitake as an example, they're gone."
If they do win tomorrow, then Eltham-Kaponga would have the opportunity, if they wanted it, to challenge premier division wooden spooners Stratford for a spot in the top flight.
Mako said they had contemplated it but whether they did or not might be another matter.
"As I said, they're a pretty casual crew."
Taranaki Daily News