It has not been easy for Bay of Plenty rugby supporters in recent seasons.

There has not been much to get excited about, with lacklustre players producing lacklustre results that did nothing to define the calibre of talent within the widespread union.

End of season playoffs were for other teams to look forward to.

Not since 2011 has a Steamers team take on the richer unions stacked with Super Rugby players and not only compete but beat them. Bay of Plenty needed a bigger picture plan, where the age group rep teams would be given more attention, the talent pool would be built up from within the union, and better players at the top would be attracted.

Advertisement

The appointment of Clayton McMillan as head coach and director of rugby in 2015 was a masterstroke. He bled blue and gold throughout his 113 games as a tough, uncompromising No 8 and inspirational captain, and was the right man for the times.

He has put programmes in place to achieve medium to long-term goals but quickly re-established pride in the jersey. Results were typically Bay of Plenty in the first two seasons, with good days and bad, but the development of the rugby academy began to pay dividends.

This season has not been perfect by any means but there has been plenty to like about the style of rugby played and particularly the attitude of the players. Winning away in Otago a fortnight ago opened the door for a home semifinal if the Steamers could get past Waikato - a team with a superior record and superior attitude when it came to the battle of the Kaimai Range.

Two weeks ago the teams met at a packed Tauranga Domain that created an atmosphere all of its own.

Waikato were a game away from being relegated out of the top tier Premiership for the first time since 1986 and the players looked nervous. The Steamers at times ripped them apart with some sublime back play, orchestrated by the little general Mike Delany and finished off by a brilliant back three of Chase Tiatia, Joe Webber and Monty Ioane.

That the game ended up a nervous case of holding on by the Steamers was due to a lack of composure and the occasion may have got to a few of the players. But they got through it to set up Saturday's semifinal knockout against Otago back at the Domain.

Again the fans turned up to fill the ground and the Steamers responded with their best performance of the season. There were some more heroics from the back three and Delany but others stood up under extreme pressure. Midfielders Terrence Hepetema and Lalakai Foketi would grace any Super Rugby team and they were massive against Otago.

Flanker Hugh Blake, up against his old team, was another to stand out. The boy from Pongakawa, who has played test rugby and international sevens for Scotland, used his sevens skills to link with the backs and won a crucial turnover ball.

They say momentum is everything in sport. The Steamers have now won three games on the bounce and will go to Wellington for Friday night's final with nothing to lose. All the pressure will be on the Lions, who have a habit of falling over when favoured to win titles.

On Saturday night fourth-placed Tasman knocked over top seeds Taranaki in New Plymouth in the Premiership semifinal. If the Steamers can get early points, silence the crowd and get those choker tags running through the Wellington players' minds, then who knows what might happen.

But win or lose this has been a season to be proud of for everyone associated with Bay of Plenty rugby. More importantly, it could be the start of a golden period for the union, with plenty more semifinals and finals to look forward to.