If you go by history, Bay of Plenty’s 35-30 victory over the mighty Canterbury in the Jock Hobbs Memorial national under 19 tournament last Saturday wasn’t supposed to happen.
Canterbury is New Zealand rugby royalty, as accustomed to hoovering up titles at age-group level as Mitre 10 Cups, Super Rugby titles and Ranfurly Shields. There are schools such as Christchurch Boys’ High and Christ’s College which produce All Blacks for fun, and the province attracts talent like bees to a honeypot.
The Jock Hobbs Memorial tournament is even named after a legendary Cantabrian.
Bay of Plenty by contrast wins a title or a Ranfurly Shield about every second blue moon, and keeps promising players in the region like a sieve holds water. They had never before made the top four of the under 19 tournament – last year’s fifth was their previous best effort.
“At the end of the day,” says Bay under 19s coach Mike Rogers, “nobody expects little old Bay of Plenty to beat Canterbury in a final, you know?”
Until now, that is.
Quietly, over the past few years, the Bay of Plenty Rugby Union has been going about upping its game in a very Bay way, with an ultimate eye on restoring the Steamers to the top table – without the need for stop-gap short-term recruitment.
The blueprint involves nurturing the best young talent in the region with a meaningful development programme. Scouting for talent from other parts that haven’t attracted the attention they deserve, and are prepared to stick around in the Bay to fill gaps in our playing stocks. And then getting them to play the game in a way that is going to make them want to be here. Without fear. With freedom. With a smile on their face.
That’s how they played in that final in Taupo. And that’s how they won.
“I guess what was most pleasing is the game almost followed a bit of a script,” says Mike. “We knew what Canterbury were going to do – typical Canterbury, they just squeeze the life out of you.
“Before you know it it’s 3-0, then 3-all or whatever, then they score a try and it’s 10-3, then they kick another penalty. All of a sudden 25 minutes have gone and we feel we haven’t even had the ball yet, and it’s 13-3.
“At that point most rugby people would’ve looked at it and said this is going to be 35-10 or something at the end.”
That’s not how Mike’s boys saw it rolling out though. They picked up the script and tore it to shreds, and that’s what puts a smile on his face.
Eventually the time came, as it was always going to, when they got a bit of ball to play with. They needed to capitalise on it, and it was the team’s sole tall poppy, Steamers and New Zealand under 20s representative Kaleb Trask, who showed them the way to the line.
“That gave the boys a bit of belief that it really is as simple as ‘let’s get our hands on the ball and let’s play’.
And that's exactly what they did, producing four more tries in a second half that may go down as one of the most significant in Bay of Plenty’s rugby history.
“It was bloody awesome. Other than the last three or four minutes you can’t really fault that second half performance. We were under a huge amount of pressure at times but they just stuck at it, and that shows a hell of a lot of character from 18 and 19-year-olds, not only to be able to withstand what Canterbury were throwing at us, but actually to stick to their guns entirely around how they wanted to play.
“That was the thing that was most pleasing.
“It meant that what we’d hoped to achieve in terms of getting the boys to play with freedom was actually enough to beat a team that had more fancied players in it.”
It was also about playing smart, though, as in dealing with the serious scrum issues they were facing. Canterbury's was bullying the Bay's and a string of penalties followed. There's nothing more demoralising in rugby than to be defending hard and well, force a mistake from your opposition, win a scrum – and then get blown apart and concede a penalty. Like “some kind of sick dream,” Mike says.
Mike's management team realised they needed to get the ball in and out of the scrums quicker, and get the number eight to pick it up himself rather than leave it to the halfback to reach in.
“When we got the message on they said they’d actually already decided that’s what they were going to do, so that’s awesome.”
“I think we only conceded one penalty from a scrum in the second half.”
That speaks volumes about the leadership of the team, something Mike says was crucial for the kind of team they were and the way they were trying to play.
Captain Kaipo Brown, a graduate of Rotorua Boys’ High School and currently working as a teacher aide at Tauranga Boys’ College, gets big plaudits for his work.
“He came up to me after the game, before the trophy had even been presented, and he said ‘I’ve got a question for you. Why did you choose me?’
“I said ‘mate, you’re not the best player in the team but you’ve got mana’, and there’s just no question about that, the way that he holds himself, the way he presents himself, the way he speaks, that’s everything that we want in a leader.
“That’s a really unique skill to have at that age. He’s just got that confidence. It’s not arrogance – he’s got a really good sense of humility – but you’re left in no doubt that he’s ready to go to war. That’s something that’s always been a Bay of Plenty trait.”
Mike was particularly struck by seeing Kaipo being interviewed by media and asking if he could answer some questions a second time in te reo, as it was Maori Language Week.
“That’s really cool because that is Bay of Plenty, you know? That’s who we are.”
The local talent is putting its hand up, but the depth is not great in certain positions, and filling those gaps with quality young players who have been undervalued in their home regions and are likely to make a long-term commitment to the Bay is another key aspect of the union’s blueprint.
A perfect example is winger Emoni Narawa, who showed huge potential with his devastating evasion and off-loading in the final.
“Mate, I think our backs coach Marty Bourke would say he taught him everything he knows,” Mike wryly observes.
“He was an absolute revelation for us. He came out of Hamilton Boys’ and wasn’t really wanted by Waikato. His development across the last nine months has been phenomenal and I’d imagine that he’d be playing Mitre 10 Cup in the next year or so.
“I think the union’s done a really good job of players that we’ve recruited into the region.
“When you consider that those players weren’t identified in the New Zealand framework 12 months ago and weren’t necessarily wanted by their provincial union, that bodes really well for us in the future, both in terms of the current group with the Steamers, but also being able to attract players into our region moving forward.”
Moves like this, as well as the attraction of the University of Waikato Adams Centre for High Performance at Blake Park, are turning the Bay from a net exporter of talent into an importer, but Mike is quick to clarify that recruitment is about reinforcing the stocks of locally-produced talent.
“The local boys were massive contributors as well, and I don’t want us to lose sight of that.
“Guys like Leroy Carter, Kaleb Trask, Cole Forbes, Gordy Lloyd; those boys were phenomenal for us throughout the campaign and they’ve definitely all improved significantly as well, which is what you want.”
Higher honours may not be long in coming. Squads for New Zealand and Chiefs under 20s and Ignite7s development camps are to be announced in the coming weeks.
Ultimately, says Mike, that's what they're aiming for. Getting as many players as they can into those squads, which then flows into the senior team.
“We know that once they get to that level they’re more than likely to be good enough to play for the Steamers over the next couple of years.”
That’s what the blueprint is all about. As Mike says about the goal of his team, “it’s not to win championships but to create future Steamers. But nice to be able to do both.”