Wairarapa Bush might have a great season this year, but whatever happens, if the weekend’s game was anything to go by, it’s going to be a great time for the fans.
On Saturday, I went down to watch my first Bush match since moving to Masterton, and it exceeded my expectations in every way.
The afternoon sun was shining as I walked out with my beer into the Sir Brian Lochore Stand to sit with hundreds of other fans for the first game of the 2023 Heartland season.
Reece Robinson’s 15 looked formidable, taking on a solid Ngāti Porou East Coast outfit.
I won’t get into the details of the game – if you want to know what happened, then read Coggie’s report at the back – but it was pretty sensational stuff.
Centurion Inia Katia sent bodies flying, halfback Sam Walton Sexton scored a great try through two defenders twice his size, and the crowd was riotous when the final whistle blew.
But it was after the game that I really discovered how good provincial rugby is as a fan.
Even though I came alone, after drinking a couple of beers in the Gravel Pit Bar, I had dozens of new mates telling me how they would coach the All Blacks better than Ian Foster.
In the clubrooms, I was chatting with the players, drinking kava with some of the Fijian players on the deck, and I even got to meet and have a conversation with East Coast’s first-ever director of rugby, the great Hosea Gear, a former All-Black.
It’s an awesome thing, as a fan, to be able to have access to players and coaches like that; it’s a feature notably absent from International or Super Rugby, with its big stadiums and tightly controlled professional environment that keeps fans and players separate.
Sitting in the crowd with my fellow Wairarapa supporters yelling for our boys in the red and green jersey, I was thinking that this is where New Zealand Rugby gets its edge.
We’re about to go into another World Cup as front-runners, with enough first-class talent to field three or four competitive teams.
The All Blacks’ record is unparalleled in rugby, and it’s built on the passion of the club and provincial game.
The selectors get to take their pick of players from nearly 500 clubs and the 26 provincial unions before they get to the five Super Rugby franchises.
I had thought this beforehand, but Saturday consolidated my view that provincial rugby is so much better than Super Rugby.
It’s not much fun watching an unenthusiastic Beauden Barrett play for the Blues, 400km north of his hometown Pungarehu; it is fun, on the other hand, to watch Eketahuna’s Sam Gammie put it all on the line for Wairarapa Bush.
That tribalism, loyalty, and enthusiasm that was so evidently on display at Trust House Memorial Park on Saturday reminded me that even in this professional era, the excitement of provincial rugby is unmatched.
Maybe it’s time the NZ Rugby Union remember, when it chooses how to spend its money, that the passion for the grassroots game is the reason rugby is our national sport.