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Wai-Bush putting heart back into Heartland

by Chris Cogdale

Is the Heartland Championship really a reflection of what goes on in the Heartland provinces ?

Or is it just another development step for the bigger NPC Unions.

I tend to think the latter.

If you haven’t clicked onto what I’m talking about, it’s the use of ‘imports’ in Heartland sides.

The history of ‘imports’ dates back to the old NPC three division days.

It was introduced in 1995 to boost the quality of the teams in the second and third divisions.

In 1995 Wairarapa-Bush brought in four Wellington players — locks Richard Watt and Graeme Smith, flanker Elliot Fuller and speedy winger Colin ‘Pencil’ Sullivan.

Watt and Sullivan became local heroes – Watt for his physical no-nonsense approach and Sullivan as much for his skinny white legs as his blistering pace.

In its time, the ‘import’ policy has been stretched, twisted, and made to fit whichever union pushed it to the limit.

In 1999 and 2000, there was the bizarre situation of New Zealand’s smallest union, East Coast, making consecutive finals of the NPC Second Division with teams that bore little resemblance to the local club rugby scene.

The “import” policy remains in place today, and allows a Heartland union to recruit three loan players [“imports”] and one player of origin, i.e. a player who had played at least three years for either a club or a school in the province between the ages of 9-18.

That’s fine. I can live with every Heartland side bringing in four players to add some quality.

The problem is, what constitutes a local player?

The regulations state:
“Local Player” means a player who: (a) is registered with a club competing in a competition conducted under the control and jurisdiction of that provincial union”.

NB: There are a couple of requirements but they’re not relative to my argument.

So, according to the regulation a ‘local player’ only has to be registered with the union prior to an agreed cut-off date.

It does not state anything about that player having to play club rugby in that province.

So now we have clever administrators registering players from Mitre 10 Cup unions simply before an arbitrary date because they don’t have the faith in the players in their own club competitions.

Take two of the front-runners in this year’s Heartland Championship — Buller and West Coast.

Depending on what version one believes, both teams could have as many as eight or even more players travelling from Nelson to Westport or from Christchurch to Greymouth each Friday to meet up with their Heartland teammates for Saturdays game, after training as separate groups in their own cities during the week.

To me that is not what Heartland rugby is all about.

What connection do those players have with the local supporters and community?

What pride do they have from representing another union?

This is where I take my hat of to the Wairarapa-Bush Rugby Union and chief executive Tony Hargood, who made it clear when he took on the role a few years ago that he wanted to see a homegrown Heartland side.

All being locals is a really good feeling, and there’s a very special team culture.
— Deon van Deventer

The union’s board bought into that and that is what he has got now.

OK, there are four ‘imports’ but they are all local having been raised here, and they’re all proud to be wearing the green and red.

Wai-Bush assistant coach Deon van Deventer summed it up when he said “all being locals is a really good feeling, and there’s a very special team culture.”

One of the Buller players told him he noticed there was something different about the togetherness in the team.

l’m not blaming administrators for using the regulations to the best of their ability but I believe they are short-changing the players in their unions albeit that’s the fault of the rule book, not theirs.

In the meantime, ‘Go the Bush’. Show the other Heartland unions you can do it without being a pawn for the Mitre 10 Cup provinces.

And to New Zealand Rugby, it’s time you made Heartland rugby truly heartland.