Rugby: Chiefs play big card to win Taranaki hearts

By Kris Shannon

The chances of wooing the province's locals away from the Hurricanes could very well depend on tonight's opposition as much as the 'home' team, writes Kris Shannon.
Michael Fitzgerald on a charge for the Chiefs in a match against the Blues last season. Photo / Getty
Michael Fitzgerald on a charge for the Chiefs in a match against the Blues last season. Photo / Getty

Huntly has a uniquely Waikato way of welcoming visitors to Chiefs Country.

"The Official Cheers Leader of the Super Rugby Champions," proclaims a billboard for Waikato Draught, positioned on the northern outskirts of town, just where a Blues fan would find it were they heading down State Highway 1 to visit Waikato Stadium.

Any intrepid Aucklanders following their team to New Plymouth for tonight's battle with the champs will find in Mokau no such declarations, no posters boasting of title credentials to those from further afield.

Two-thirds along the three-hour stretch of State Highway 3 that separates Hamilton and New Plymouth, the picturesque seaside town, situated where the snaking road meets the western coastline for the first time, is home to the Tainui Rugby Club, the most northern Taranaki affiliate. Now officially Chiefs Country.

Until recently it was Hurricanes territory but, after years of frustration normally associated with that franchise, the locals can at last join their brethren in Huntly and brag about being champs.

Whether they want to, though, is another question altogether.

Supporters switching allegiances is a rather grubby affair and should largely be left to those young enough to not know any better; kids for whom an association with a winning side is far more important than loyalty.

After all, the deeper the affections lie, the more difficult the split and, even if the new model is a more attractive proposition, it's rarely straightforward to vanquish memories, both good and bad, of the first love.

But that's exactly what the Chiefs are asking of the people of Taranaki.

The charm offensive began on Wednesday but, rather than pulling out a full-court press, the Chiefs are easing their way into the consciousness of the Taranaki rugby public. A few school visits here, an open training session there - they understand that ingratiating themselves into the region will be a gradual process.

"I think the Chiefs have presented themselves really well this week," says Taranaki Rugby chief executive Mike Collins. "They're not in everyone's face and doing parades down the main street - stuff like that.

"They're just very low key - this is who we are - as you would expect with a champion team like the Chiefs."

There is an obvious danger in coming on too strong; the Chiefs can hardly pretend Super Rugby ceased to exist before their arrival. The Hurricanes, for their faults, have a hold of the hearts of many in New Plymouth and beyond, and the continuing presence in yellow of hometown hero Beauden Barrett certainly helps.

"I see it as a work in progress," Collins says. "I don't think you can take away 17 years from one franchise and expect everyone to drop everything and move to this new one. But the comments on the street are all reasonably good at the moment."

That could very well be attributable to tonight's opposition as much as the home team. While the locals are undoubtedly curious to catch a glimpse of their new Super Rugby partner, the Blues hold equal intrigue. And there is perhaps the Chiefs' canniest move: producing such a high-calibre contest for their maiden visit.

The last time New Plymouth played host to an all-Kiwi affair was 15 years ago, and that kind of neglect from the Hurricanes is one of the reasons Taranaki opted out in the first place.

"We're rapt," Collins says. "It's fantastic to have two New Zealand teams playing here. The Blues team is full of All Blacks and I'm pretty sure the rugby public will jump out and get behind it since it's in their own backyard."

Before they reached that backyard, it's unlikely the Chiefs' bus would have stopped in Mokau for morning tea. As well as missing a feast of whitebait at the River Run Cafe, the players also passed up the opportunity to visit the Tainui Domain.

Home to the Tainui Rugby Club, there laid a scene that would never look out of place in rural Waikato, give or take a few cowbells.

The playing field, almost indistinguishable from the surrounding farmland, is set in front of modest club rooms. The grass seems more suitable for feeding the cows rather than feeding the backs, while a pair of rusted crossbars sit slightly askew and extend too far past the uprights, like an ill-formed 'H'.

The domain comes replete with ocean views, easily seen from the small wooden reserves' benches that sit on halfway. In fact, a miscued clearing kick could probably find its way into the adjacent inlet that feeds into the sea.

There's not quite sheep shit on the field - some trusty No8 wire prevents that possibility - but the Tainui Domain resembles a prototypical grasslands rugby club.

There are clubs like Tainui - most larger, admittedly - all along this route, from Otorohanga in the north to Waitara in the south. Turns out Chiefs Country both old and new have a fair bit in common.

Even bathed in their recent glory, the Chiefs have always been a blue-collar team, with working-class values built on teamwork and dedication, a contrast to the once-big brother Blues on which the Waikato men prided themselves.

The part of the country where south Waikato bleeds into north Taranaki fits well with those sensibilities, with the black singlet more common attire than the suit. A passerby must watch not for police but for tractors on the road, while the locals, according to road-side signs, are more familiar with auctioning bulls than prime real estate.

There's even the discoloured Awakino River, which weaves from one side of State Highway 3 to the other, to help Hamiltonians feel like home.

If the Chiefs are to be made to feel like home, Dave Rennie thinks it will be up to his side's performances to earn respect from the region. But the immediacy with which the Chiefs have brought games to Yarrow Stadium must have already engendered a measure of that, as Rennie points out.

"We're taking a couple of good games down there," he says. "It's a chance for them to see some Super Rugby.

"The Hurricanes have gone there twice in the last seven years; we're going to go twice in one year. So hopefully people will just want to come along and watch."

The coach knows it will take time to win over the region and he acknowledges that some ardent Hurricanes fans may never change their stripes. But, as Tim Nanai-Williams jokes, the Chiefs will do well to target some of the area's younger citizens.

"We're doing a bit of community work down here and going to schools, and hopefully we can covert some of the kids - get them while they're young.

"I know the boys are excited to get down there and play somewhere different - our new home. It's not going to take one game to win over the Taranaki people; we're not going to go over there and tell them to jump on the wagon.

"We just want to go over there and play a few games in front of them and hopefully they buy into what we're doing in the Chiefs region."

In New Plymouth, there appears to be an immediate buy-in at the tallest building in town, on the corner of Gill and Liardet Sts, where a giant Chiefs jersey covers the northern face and hangs motionless on a grey afternoon.

It was, in fairness, the only obvious sign the Chiefs were in town, with the city rather far removed from the flags and fireballs and running rugby found once a fortnight at Waikato Stadium.

That may change tonight when the teams run out at Yarrow Stadium, but the prevailing mood will likely be some way short of rabid fervour. That mood could change after a few years and a few more high-profile fixtures. It may never change. Or, as Marie, manning the front desk at the Plymouth International hotel reckons, the tide could start to turn as soon as the Chiefs meet the Hurricanes next month. "We're all a bit on the fence," she says, "with Beauden Barrett being the hometown boy and all. And [the Hurricanes] are going so well this year.

"We might have to get two jerseys and see which team does better."

Recent history suggests the Chiefs can claim that particular fight. But will they win the war and wrestle away the support of the Taranaki people, from the rugby club in Mokau, harkening back to a day before professionalism and franchises, to the city of New Plymouth, where the litmus test begins tonight?

Good Home, a popular downtown bar, will be one of the trenches where that war is fought. A victory over the Blues will aid in the effort and, who knows, maybe one day the establishment could resemble its equivalent in Hamilton.

Except for one, crucial difference: At Good Home, the chief beer on tap is Tui.

No sign of the Official Cheers Leaders.

- NZ Herald

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