Eels and Dogs switch allegiance

Bulldogs pre-season training at Gordon Spratt Reserve

Tauranga’s two premier rugby league teams have split with their regional power base in Rotorua and switched their loyalty to Waikato. But it’s a sensitive issue and no-one is saying exactly why.

Both the Otumoetai Eels and their cross-bridge cousins, the Papamoa Bulldogs have decided their future lies over the Kaimai Range in Waikato rather than with Rotorua and the traditional Bay of Plenty competition.

And both club’s will start their 2019 regular club competition games against Waikato teams in Tauranga this weekend.

The reasons for the split aren’t clear but The Weekend Sun has been told it involved “resources and logistics.” Local league coaches wouldn’t discuss the specifics but said they had to look at their options and decide what was best for the code in Tauranga.

The Bay of Plenty District Rugby League did not want to comment on a decision made by another district. “We are focused on building rugby league within our own district,” says chairman Graeme Hill.”And that is consuming a large amount of time and resource.”

“The move has got to be good for us,” says Papamoa Bulldogs coach James Jock Nicholson. “The Waikato representative side plays against the big guns Counties-Manukau and Akarana representing all the Auckland club sides.” So that tells Jock their ‘footie’ isn’t too bad.

“No disrespect to the Bay of Plenty competition. But if we are playing against that calibre of competition, then it’s going to improve our game and be good for rugby league in the Coastline region.”

This weekend the Papamoa Bulldogs and “their cousins from across the bridge”, Otumoetai Eels, kick off their regular club season against Waikato Clubs instead of Bay of Plenty clubs. The bulldogs will play Hamilton City Tigers, traditionally one of the top two or three sides, and the Eels will play the vaunted Taniwharau Taniwha from Huntly. Taniwharau won the Waikato competition last year. So that’s an immediate challenge for the Eels.

The premier rugby league competition in the Rotorua district began last weekend. “And it’s highly competitive. We wish all the other districts the best for the season,” said the diplomatic Rotorua rugby league boss, Graeme Hill.

The switch from the Rotorua base to Hamilton means the Bulldogs’ Jock Nicholson will have to recalibrate his ambitions. This is his second year as steward of the Bulldogs, and he had given himself three years to win the Bay of Plenty competition. “Absolutely right. I suppose I will be starting all over again. But we have come a long way with the development of our talent at the Papamoa Bulldogs. I can see the progress. So that’s a pay-off.”

So in come the likes of the Ngaruawahia Panthers, Hamilton City Tigers, Turangawaewae, and College Old Boys and it’s goodbye to the Pikiao Warriors, Taupo Phoenix and Pacific Sharks.  

What does the shift of allegiance to Hamilton mean? “Well, we are our own identity,” says James. “We are Coastline. So it’s business as usual. So for Coastline rugby league it’s a big step in the right direction and the game in Waikato has been very accommodating.” And that means the Bulldogs and Eels will be taking State Highway 29 rather than 36 to compete on Saturdays.

Waikato were also offering competitions for the youth grades to the Coastline clubs as well, it was quite understandable that the seniors also followed suit. And there was another carrot. The Waikato Rugby League also offered two extra fixtures to the Coastline representative team which was revived last year. “Brilliant,” says James.

“We will be playing Waikato Country and a Waikato City side. It’s an added incentive to our players. A couple of rep games worked into the regular club schedule before rep footie at the end of the club season.”

And the Bulldogs coach doesn’t believe he’s expecting too much of his players. “If we are being tested every weekend it will bring out the best in our players and will be great for the game in Tauranga.”

The Bulldogs premiers play Hamilton City at 3pm at Gordon Spratt Reserve in Papamoa. The reserves play at 1:30pm. Across town the Eels premiers and reserves play Taniwharau at the same times at Mitchell Park in Otumoetai.

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