It started as a season full of hope and optimism, one where the Bay of Plenty Steamers would go one better than 2017 and win promotion to the Mitre 10 Cup Premiership.

It's going to end as the least successful campaign since 2014 and the first time under head coach Clayton McMillan that the team has failed to reach the semifinals of the tier 2 Championship.

No matter the outcome of Saturday's final match against Northland at Tauranga Domain, the Steamers will finish fifth in the Championship. In reality, that's 12th out of 14 teams in the Mitre 10 Cup.

Nobody can say that is satisfactory. The questions at the end of season review will centre around what happened, and why did it turn so bad?


Remember back to that sunny Saturday, September 1 when the Steamers led Canterbury with 20 minutes to play at Tauranga Domain? On reflection, that was the apex of the season. Things turned in the last quarter of that match and in spite of that scratchy win in Invercargill last Sunday, they haven't really been back on track since.

There has been serious misfortune. Injuries, especially in the front row and then at first five, have cut the heart from the team.

There hasn't been much good luck either. A couple of tries awarded to Hawke's Bay in the 29-28 loss at McLean Park were questionable. Kaleb Trask missed an easy conversion which would have turned the 17-15 loss to Manawatu into a draw, and another competition point that night would have at least allowed them a chance of making the semifinals this Saturday.

But those are just excuses. The reality is the team just didn't have enough attacking firepower, particularly in the backs. That was compounded by too many mistakes when the team was building a decent sequence of phase play.

It's not that the players don't have the necessary skill. But too often they let themselves down with basic errors – the difference between a good team and a really good one.

The BP1 column in the Championship points table tells a story. BP1 stands for bonus point 1 – awarded when a team scores four tries in a match.

The Steamers have just two points in that column. Championship front runners Waikato and Hawke's Bay have 7. The other semifinalists, Otago and Northland, each have four.

In the Premiership, Canterbury have 8, Auckland 7 and Tasman and Wellington six each.

You can't be a title contender if you don't score tries, and this year Bay of Plenty just didn't score enough.

The best performance of the season was the first. Taranaki were completely outplayed. The ball handling that night was pretty much perfect. Sadly, that couldn't be said about the next eight matches.

The forwards have improved markedly during the campaign. The scrum that was pushed around early has held its own in recent matches. The lineout has gone well and Mitch Karpik, Tyler Ardron and Hoani Matenga have been a strong loose forward trio.

For 2018, there's nothing on Saturday's match against Northland. The top four in the Championship have been decided. But this weekend should be regarded as a day from which to launch a platform for 2019.

The Bay of Plenty Rugby Union has an ambitious strategy. It hit a big hole in the road this year. Much better will be expected next year.