Scotty Stevenson: Tasman turn from bitter rivalry to fierce protection

The Tasman Makos have fashioned a connection strong enough to bind them together across five Super Rugby franchises. Photo / Bay of Plenty Times
The Tasman Makos have fashioned a connection strong enough to bind them together across five Super Rugby franchises. Photo / Bay of Plenty Times

When the famous old rugby unions of Nelson Bays and Marlborough merged to form Tasman in 2006, you could say the new team had a major identity crisis to overcome.

Not to put too fine a point on it, the two distinct unions at the top of the South Island quite enjoyed being separated by "the hill", and many an old-timer choked on his lager at the suggestion that a century of bitter history between them could be wiped away by a simple rebranding exercise.

Nelson Bays may have been more comfortable with the idea, having already undertaken one merger (with Golden Bay-Motueka), and the two unions had occasionally come together to beat up on some foreign touring side.

But for those who plied their rugby trade for clubs such as Picton's Waitohi, or for the tussock-jumpers of the Awatere, the very thought of a permanently combined team was as unpalatable as a sour grape, as sinkable as the Mikhail Lermontov.

Fortunately, though by no means quickly, petty and not-so-petty differences were put aside and Tasman debuted in the 2006 Air New Zealand Cup.

They played all their home games at Lansdowne Park in Blenheim that year and won two - 43-0 against Manawatu and 56-15 against my beloved Northland.

I still remember watching that game, and wondering how on earth the new kids on the block could put a half-century on the Cambridge Blue.

Tasman announced their arrival in the top league not by winning a whole bunch of games, but by playing the kind of attacking, free-wheeling rugby that would become their hallmark. Even in that first year they averaged more points per game than all but the three most storied teams in provincial history, Auckland, Canterbury and Waikato.

There was something about the Makos, as Tasman would come to be known, that people from around the country seemed to love. They had a personality that was not grafted from the big provincial centres.

They were almost exotic - boys from the sunshine capital of the country or from among the vines. They played with a reckless abandon that didn't always produce victories, but almost always produced big scores.

They developed a reputation for their team spirit, as they showed when the fledgling union was up for the chop by New Zealand Rugby in 2008.

They found a way to win more games than they ever had before and made the quarter-finals for the first time. The next year, they enjoyed another first - a victory over Auckland. It would not be their last.

Tasman was a place for cult heroes. Think Mark Bright and Jonathan Poff, Alex Ainley and Lucky Mulipola, Andrew Goodman and Robbie Malneek. They were unknowns before that debut season, but were soon household names for aficionados of the provincial game.

More would come later - Quentin MacDonald and Joe Wheeler, the Marshall brothers and Marty God-damned Banks among them. Even the coaches were idiosyncratic, none more so than Kieran Keane.

In 2013, Tasman won their first championship title and with it promotion to the Premiership. The next year they faced Taranaki in a second consecutive grand final - arguably the most-watched in almost a decade of expanded competition.

Tasman fell short of a famous victory but reinforced their reputation as one of the most entertaining teams in the country.

The story of Tasman's decade of existence is quite extraordinary when you think about it. To go from an awkward merger of two bitter rivals to one of the most iconic brands in New Zealand rugby in the space of 10 years is quite something.

The team have fashioned a connection strong enough to bind them together across five Super Rugby franchises. It matters not where you're playing in the pro leagues - once a Mako, always a Mako. The fins are up.

So attached have the players become to that shared identity - that brand - that a dozen of the current mob have Mako shark tattoos. All of them are the same apart from one small detail: the player's own cap number.

And this is why they don't want a new logo. This is why Tasman now have a new identity crisis: these players believe a decade of sweet history should not be wiped away by a simple rebranding exercise.

- NZ Herald

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