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Is ‘no imports’ realistic?

James Goodger, with ball, is one of several experienced players who have retired since the 2019 season. PHOTOS/FILE

Is it time to revisit the Wairarapa-Bush Rugby Union’s ‘no import’ policy?

The team’s below-par performance in finishing 10th of 12 teams in the Heartland Championship highlighted a severe lack of depth in the club scene, exaggerated further when injuries ruled out experienced players.

The Wairarapa-Bush Rugby Union introduced a bold initiative in 2016 to field a Heartland Championship team made up of Wairarapa players and ‘players of origin’ only by 2019.

That was achieved, and the team under the coaching of Joe Harwood progressed to the top four of the Meads Cup, losing a controversial semifinal 25-27 to eventual champions North Otago.

The 2020 Heartland season was an oddity, with the championship cancelled and regional series played because of covid-19 restrictions. All the teams fielded their local players. Wai-Bush went on to win four of their five games, making it hard to compare last year with this year.

The best comparison is the 2019 season, so what are the differences between that side and the team that struggled to gel this season?

Bruce Kauika-Petersen on the charge for Wai-Bush against King Country in 2019. The hooker-flanker made a huge impact as a ‘player of origin’ in 2019.

First, the 2019 players of origin included hooker-flanker Bruce Kauika-Petersen and No 8 Kirk Tufuga, who both went on to play NPC rugby.

Utility forward James Goodger, lock Lachie McFadzean, and utility back Tim Priest, all NZ Heartland XV representatives, had retired leaving huge gaps to fill, while props Max and Sam Tufuga, and promising utility back Raniera Petersen left to test their skills elsewhere.

That left coach Mark Rutene, who was appointed to his second term in charge having previously coached the team from 2011-14, starting behind the eight-ball.

His cause wasn’t helped with a season-ending injury to former Wellington Sevens representative Levi Harmon [a player of origin], who could have established a potent midfield combination with former All Black Zac Guildford, who also never took the field because of injury.

Then there were other injuries throughout the campaign, which are part and parcel of rugby.

But my focus here is the policy of ‘imports’.

I have opined in the past that the Heartland Championship should solely be for players in the various club competitions, with maybe some allowance for ‘players of origin’.

Is the Wai-Bush strategy realistic given the shortcomings exposed over the past eight weeks, especially when pretty much every other union makes the most of bringing in rising talent or experienced campaigners from surrounding NPC provinces or their parent Super Rugby franchises?

South Canterbury, Mid Canterbury, and Whanganui showed the benefits of astutely acquired recruitment with their ‘imports’ making a massive impact in their wins over Wai-Bush.

Former All Black Ma’a Nonu was a major influence in East Coast winning three of their last four games. PHOTO/JADE CVETKOV

If you needed more evidence, look no further than Saturday’s 19-34 loss to a Ngati Porou East Coast side featuring Ma’a Nonu.

The former All Black didn’t do a lot in his 51 minutes on the field, but every time he got the ball, he straightened the line and attracted defenders, and the other players lifted their game around him.

The idea of ‘imports’ can disengage some of the more traditional supporters, but they soon come around when the team is winning. In contrast, a losing underperforming team will turn off a bigger contingent of fans even quicker.

Wai-Bush has had success with “imports” in the past, with flying winger Colin ‘Pencil’ Sullivan and abrasive lock Richard Watt, who became crowd favourites in the mid-1990s, so they are nothing to be scared of – if the right players in the right positions are recruited.

The likelihood of getting other unions to follow Wai-Bush’s lead is remote, as any change to the Heartland Championship regulations requires unanimity among all the unions and given the potential that NPC and Super Rugby franchises see in using the championship as a development tool.

Although the Wai-Bush Union’s intent is admirable, is it time to kick their ‘no imports’ policy into touch and move with the times and adapt, or get left behind?

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