John (JB) Phillips looks at the success of the Pink Batts Heartland Championship which enters its ninth season this year and the role Wanganui has played in the development of the competition.
For the first seven years of the Heartland competition, which has embraced the 12 second and third division unions since the old National NPC competition format was revamped in 2006, Wanganui played a leading role in the championship.
The Butcher Boys were finalists in the Meads Cup every year between 2006 and 2012, winning the title in 2008-09-11 and finishing runners-up to Wairarapa-Bush in 2006, to North Otago in 2007 and 2010 and to East Coast in 2012.
Wanganui, under successive head coaches Milton Haig (now coach of World Cup qualifiers Georgia), Guy Lennox and Jason Caskey, played an expansive and entertaining style of rugby with a policy of as few loan players as possible.
This is reflected by the fact that 24 Wanganui players have won selection in NZ Heartland sides since 2006, headed by six-timer Peter Rowe who has been captain for the past two years, Chris Back has been NZ Heartland manager since 2009 and Guy Lennox was coach of the national team three times.
Add in loose forward Peter Rowe (2010 and 2012), wingers Cameron Crowley (2008) and Asaeli Tikoirotuma (2009) and lock Jon Smyth (2011) being named NZ Heartland Player of the Year and Wanganui has been a major force in the annual championship.
A number of players have gone onto higher honours including Waisake Naholo to the NZ Sevens, Asaeli Tikoirotuma and Mike Fitzgerald to Super Rugby titles with the Chiefs, and others have progressed to ITM Cup union teams.
Wanganui had been a strong contender in the old NPC Div 3 competition, winning the title in 1989-1996 and 2003, at seven year cycles, with the third championship coming under the coaching of Milton Haig with Guy Lennox as his assistant.
Apart from a blip in 2002, when finishing fifth, Wanganui was in the top three in the other eight seasons in Div 3 including finishing runners-up to Thames Valley in 1989 and to Horowhenua-Kapiti in 1993.
The arrival of the Heartland series in 2006 saw Wanganui’s attacking brand of entertaining 15-man rugby proving a real handful for the other 11 unions in the championship.
There were serious challenges to Wanganui’s dominant role but by reaching every Meads Cup final for seven straight years was clear proof of the consistently high standard of play produced by the Butcher Boys.
Wanganui went through the inaugural Heartland season in 2006 unbeaten in qualifying play despite several close shaves including a 23-all draw with King Country in Te Kuiti and a close 11-6 home win over South Canterbury.
Wairarapa, however, had been a force the previous two seasons, finishing second to Poverty Bay in the 2004 NPC Div 3 final and beating Horowhenua-Kapiti 28-23 in the 2005 final.
Coach Peter Russell had moulded the Stags into a formidable unit and upsetting Wanganui in the first Heartland final completed a three-year cycle of success.
Looming as a threat since the late 1990’s was North Otago, once one of the “easy beat” unions who engaged in attracting Pacific Island players to Oamaru and reaching three successive Div 3 finals before beating Horowhenua-Kapiti 43-19 in the 2002 final after being narrowly beaten by East Coast and South Canterbury in the previous two finals.
The Old Golds then reached three Div 2 semis with those titles going to Hawke’s Bay (twice) and Nelson Bays, two unions who were promoted to Div 1 when the national competitions were revamped in 2006.
After finishing third in the 2006 Heartland series North Otago has made the Meads Cup play-offs every year but one, winning the title at home in 2007 (25-8 against Wanganui) and 2010 (38-18 v Wanganui) and finishing second last season to Mid Canterbury (20-26) in Ashburton.
The decision to attract Pacific Island players to work around Oamaru, to bring out key players from the United Kingdom, and to obtain talented loan players from Otago has resulted in North Otago reaching semi-finals of NPC Div 3 or Div 2 and Meads Cup or Lochore Cup over the past 14 years.
The only time the Old Golds missed the top Meads Cup group play-offs was in 2009 but there was consolation by beating West Coast 21-13 in the Lochore Cup final.
Mid Canterbury, NPC Div 3 champions in 1994 and 1998, has also been a formidable union in Heartland rugby, reaching the Meads Cup semis every season apart from 2012 when beaten by neighbours South Canterbury in the Lochore Cup play-offs.
Wanganui was the real pain in the butt for the Hammers, beating them 27-12 in 2009 and 34-13 in 2010 in Meads Cup finals and thrown in for good measure were three semi-final defeats.
First-term coach Glenn Moore finally guided Mid Canterbury to Heartland success last year with a welcome 26-20 home Meads Cup final victory over North Otago, Auckland loan goal-kicker Murray Williams playing a major role during the season with 123 points.
It may have been coincidental that for the first time Mid Canterbury did not play Wanganui last year.
But Wanganui had such a dismal 2013 season, with a change of coaches one of the reasons, it may have made no difference that the two unions did not play each other.
Wanganui, after a bomb shell dropping to seventh place overall, has recalled former champion Meads Cup selector-coaches Jason Caskey, Jason Hamlin and Guy Lennox plus ex-selector Marty McGrath in a bid to climb back into the top echelon of Heartland rugby this year.
It may not be an easy task because South Island teams claimed all the glory last season by providing all four Meads and Lochore Cup Heartland finalists with Mid and South Canterbury winning titles to add to the success of Canterbury in the ITM Cup championship.
The Lochore Cup was earlier the domain of Poverty Bay with the Reds winning in 2006-07-08-11, North Otago in 2009, Wairarapa-Bush in 2010, Buller in 2012 and South Canterbury last year.
There were the doubters when the NZRU introduced the new championship divisions in 2006, scrubbing the old NPC Div 1, 2 and 3 grades and bringing in ITM and Heartland.
Some unions have questioned the composition and format of the championship first division but the dozen Heartland unions are very content with their Meads-Lochore Cups competition and do not want any major changes.
Heartland rugby gave representative rugby in the former Div 2 and 3 unions a much needed shot in the arm with the competition proving very successful and popular.
The naming of a NZ Heartland team at the end of each season is an extra incentive honour for the top players to aim for.
We shall also be posting here for the remainder of the Week Daily previews on all Heartland Teams.
Previews compiled by JB Phillips