Daniel Richardson is a Wellington-based sports journalist for NZME. News Service.

Rugby: History weighs on Harbour hope

Harbour have had moments of hope, flashes of brilliance but, ultimately, failure. Photo / Getty Images
Harbour have had moments of hope, flashes of brilliance but, ultimately, failure. Photo / Getty Images

North Harbour's 35-27 defeat by Wellington on Wednesday night was symbolic of their fate of the past few years.

Moments of hope, flashes of brilliance but, ultimately, failure.

Harbour should produce a decent showing in the ITM Cup but recent results have been anything but.

They've dropped their opening three contests of the competition this year, although they have endured a rough draw that has seen them play three Premiership sides.

Last year they finished 14th overall and won one game; they were 13th in 2011, 11th in 2010, 12th in 2009 and 2008, while they came ninth in 2007. You can see the trend.

The memory of skipper Rua Tipoki lifting the Log o' Wood after they beat Canterbury 21-17 on September 24, 2006, is fast fading.

Peter Thorburn was Harbour's first coach when they entered the old third division in 1985, after they were formed as a breakaway union from Auckland, and said it was sad to see the side's plight.

"I'm a life member and I'm ashamed to say it, but I don't go to the games any more," the former All Black selector said.

"I'm past frustration. It now just looks venomous if I say anything; it looks like I'm a grumpy old prick who isn't getting his own way, but I think it's worth fighting for."

Thorburn's major grumble is with talent identification in the union and he pointed to the fact that prominent rugby schools Westlake Boys High, Rosmini College and Massey High School are all in the area.

"We've got the fourth-highest number of registered players in the country, we've got the third-highest population area, we've got some of the best rugby secondary schools and it's a wealthy area for business."

Thorburn pointed to a player such as Gareth Anscombe, who he said wasn't even offered an academy spot with Harbour yet started at first-five for Auckland in 2010 in his first year out of Rosmini.

In the past few years Harbour have also endured a high turnover of players, with promising talent such as Ben Botica and Mike Harris taking their skills abroad.

Lock Chris Smith played his 50th game for Harbour in the loss to Wellington this week and only three players remain in the union from when he made his debut in 2007.

Harbour coach Liam Barry, who enjoyed two stints with the province as a player, said they had taken a homegrown focus to this year's side. Barry is in his third year in charge at Harbour and said he felt a sense of ownership to turn things around.

"Every coach is going, 'How do we do this better, what do we do tomorrow to make this team get better?'It's a constant for a coach and if you can't produce the results, it's producing how you play."

Harbour are a young team and there's hope things may soon click.

Fringe All Black Francis Saili is exciting, schoolboy Tevita Li impressed on Wednesday, while halfback Bryn Hall has promise and Nafi Tuitavake possesses a quick pair of heels. Throw in the experience of Smith, James Parsons and Malakai Ravulo and there's reason to believe.

Smith, 25, said there was no quick fix.

"I think it's dangerous to go look for heaps of answers if you're looking for a Holy Grail. There's never been any years where we just haven't competed, we've always been in the game ... It's never been a case of just being hopeless."

Smith has a point. Of the nine losses Harbour copped last year, three were by seven points or less, while they also finished the competition with a better points differential than Hawkes Bay, Southland and Manawatu.

But a union with the resources of Harbour should never be about trying to be competitive, surely?

Harbour chief executive Brett Hollister said the union had made noted improvements in its finances in recent seasons and continued to operate with an eye on developing local players.

"There's a really clearly defined Harbour culture within the group and if you've got people that have been brought up in the local region that makes some sense. That came out of [an independent] review last year. It was certainly an area of focus for us," Hollister said.

He still had faith the side could make waves this season.

"I'm certainly very optimistic and still believe that this team is going to perform well and will be in contention at the back end of the comp."

The road to contention begins tomorrow when Harbour host Northland in Albany at 5.35pm.

- NZ Herald

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