THE HEARTLAND Rugby Championship, due to kick off next week, is all about building a sense of pride in smaller communities, including Wanganui.
This was a major thread that came through during the first official launch of the season in Waikanae on Tuesday where new sponsors Pink Batts was introduced.
Each of the 12 unions in the competition sent representatives to the launch where two legends of the game - Sir Brian Lochore and Sir Colin Meads - kicked off the Pink Batts Heartland Championship season for 2013. Representing Wanganui were provincial union chief executive Dale Cobb, Steelform Wanganui team manager Chris Back, player Vaan Rauhina and Wanganui District Council sport and recreation advisor Keith Smith.
Back, who is in his seventh year as manager, said the championship fostered passion, pride and parochialism in small towns throughout New Zealand where more often than not the local rugby clubs were the main community focal points.
"It gives small towns an identity and you only have to see the support local communities give to their teams throughout the Heartland Championship to see the pride," Back said yesterday.
"The championship is also now a recognised pathway for players to make their way up the rugby ladder to ITM and Super Rugby level and ultimately the All Blacks."
Cobb said the launch, the first of its kind since the Heartland competition began in 2006, was an ideal vehicle to not only rub shoulders with legends of the game, but to have face-to-face meetings with key movers and shakers behind the scenes.
"The launch featured all the top people from New Zealand Rugby and key administrators of the Heartland Championship. It was useful to meet these guys face-to-face. This championship has grown to be a sustainable series that fosters all sorts of benefits in small communities and Wanganui is certainly at the forefront of its short history, winning it three times and being runners-up several times," Cobb said.
"People still talk about that final last season between us and East Coast where they came back from the dead to beat us. While it still hurts it's also great to be part of that history. It was awesome that East Coast was able to win and that we played a major part in that, but at the same time that game gives us motivation to give it our all and avenge that loss by winning this season's title."
The 12 unions - Thames Valley, East Coast, Poverty Bay, King Country, Wanganui, Wairarapa-Bush, Horowhenua-Kapiti, Buller, West Coast, Mid Canterbury, South Canterbury and North Otago - will commence battle when the championship begins on Saturday week when Steelform Wanganui will play King Country at Cooks Gardens.
The series involves 54 matches over 10 weeks culminating in the Meads Cup and Lochore Cup finals on the weekend of October 26-27.
New Zealand Rugby chief executive Steve Tew said the Pink Batts Heartland Championship was a hugely important competition for rural New Zealand.
"There is no doubt that passions run high in heartland New Zealand when it comes to rugby and this year again we will have a season packed with local colour and fierce provincial rivalries," he said.
"Every year we see games that ignite local passions and bring communities together to support their teams.
"If you ever needed proof that Heartland rugby was in great shape, then the two action-packed finals from last season provided plenty of evidence of that.
"It's also pleasing to have Pink Batts on board as the title sponsor, which is the first time in some years the championship has had a corporate supporter. We greatly appreciate the new partnership with Tasman Insulation and the profile it brings to this important competition."
Tasman Insulation general manager Tony Te Au said: "We're tremendously proud to be the naming rights sponsor of the Pink Batts Heartland Championship. We hope this will help increase the profile of what is an important tier in domestic competitions."
STEELFORM WANGANUI DRAW
Steelform Wanganui has four home and four away games during the 2013 Heartland rugby Championship season. There are games over the following eight weeks before the semifinals kick in at Week 9 on October 19.
The Wanganui draw is:Saturday Aug 24: v King Country, Cooks Gardens
Saturday Aug 31:v Buller, Westport
Saturday Sept 7: v Sth Canterbury, Cooks Gardens
Saturday Sept 14: v Poverty Bay, Gisborne
Saturday Sept 21: v Thames Valley, Cooks Gardens
Saturday Sept 28: v North Otago, Oamaru
Saturday Oct 5: v Horo-Kapiti, Levin
Saturday Oct 12: v West Coast, Cooks Gardens
Saturday Oct 19: Meads & Lochore Cup Semifinals
Sat-Sun Oct 26-27 Championship Finals