The Coastline Mariners may have ended their North Island Championship rugby league campaign without a win, but the foundations have been laid for next year.
That is the hope of Mariners coach Jock Nicholson after his side were beaten 38-34 by Manawatu, in Kawerau on Saturday. It completed a comeback for the Mariners, a team largely made up of Ōtūmoetai Eels and Pāpāmoa Bulldogs players, after defaults in 2017 led to their exclusion from representative competition last year.
Mariners centre Pone Kahotea scored four tries in the game. Nicholson said while it would have been great to close the season with a win, he was proud of what his team had achieved.
"We had a bit of a slow start and then we came back well. Each side gave a lot of opportunities to the other and it was a good clean, hard-fought game," Nicholson says.
"We certainly haven't looked out of place in this competition. We have had some really good games. We got the buy-in from the players, the calibre of players has been high quality and that will carry on next year.
"We just didn't give up all season. There were a few firsts for this team and we looked better as each game progressed.
"The guys that brought into it this year will be even better next year. It has been exciting for us to be back in this competition and it has been a really good lift for our region."
With trips to Whangarei and Wellington, Nicholson says there has been a lot of learning on and off the field.
"We will be a year wiser next year. There is some importance around the funding and we need to sort that out earlier. We got through the campaign, apart from the trip north we had a full squad for the games. There have been massive improvements.
"We need to be planning and probing more to see what we can organise. We want to start that kind of thing six months to a year in advance. As a coaching and management team, we will also be looking at our selection process. We will get feedback from the players about what worked well and what didn't.
"For me the challenge next year is we need to be a bit more ruthless. At the end of the day, it is rep football, it is about winning."
Nicholson says the younger players in the squad gained valuable experience.
"We had some young guns in their early 20s, it is all about using things like the travel experience and the high level of footy and taking it back to their club. It is also about them becoming a leader in the club."
Nicholson says having a representative programme also creates pathways for the players. Nicholson will coach a North Island selection side, which he hopes to name this week, to play a New South Wales county team and a touring British side next month.
North Island Championship results for Saturday, September 21:
Manawatu Mustangs 38, Coastline Mariners 34.
Wellington Orcas 28, Northern Swords 24.