There was a classic moment at the Te Taitokerau Maori Sports Awards in Waitangi last month, shortly after Phil Marsh accepted the Open Male Sportsperson of the Year award on behalf of Adam Blair.

Leaving the stage, Marsh held the award aloft and shouted, almost defiantly, "Hokianga!"

He later recalled watching Blair - unable to be present at the awards in being on tour with the Kiwis in England - progress through the junior divisions and age grade rep league with Northland sides shortly after the family of the Kiwis and Warriors star made the move from Panguru to Whangarei.

The connection between the two men may not be profound but it's there.


Everyone remembers how the Hokianga born and bred Marsh took the Hokianga Pioneers to back-to-back titles in the Whangarei City and Districts competition towards the end of last decade. That side fell into recess a couple of seasons ago around the same time their former coach moved to Whangarei with his wife to start work with a drug rehab programme.

He returned to the 13-man game earlier this year by taking over the general manager role at Rugby League Northland. He came into the role after a massive rift which had opened between the north and south sides of the province following the formation of the breakaway Taitokerau Rugby League alliance in 2016. That rift, however, started earlier than that.

Season in review Looking at his first season at the helm of Rugby League Northland, Marsh felt the organisation had finally started to regain some of the ground lost through the formation of the TRL.

"We did really, really well, especially the age grade teams. We increased our numbers in this area. It's rugby league - our kids have always been really good in the teenage grades."

On the domestic front, the Far North side of Marsh was pleased to see the Nga Tama Toa and Ngapuhi Toa sides take out the RLN U15s and U17s competitions respectively against their Whangarei rivals. He certainly didn't go along with the theory it was a concession to allow both teams with their blatant TRL affiliations to play in the RLN comp by stating it would have simply been counter-productive to deny them.

"I was never going to stop teams from up home to play in our comp. With not enough teams to have a comp up there and not enough down here - it was a no-brainer."

The highlight of the year was the success enjoyed by RLN rep sides on the national provincial stage. Both the Northern Swords 15s and 17s recorded significant first wins at the age grade nationals (held over a long weekend), as well as featuring all local content compared with the previous year when the two sides had to be propped up by Auckland leftovers.

"This year teams were all made up of Northland players, and a good majority of those came from up North," Marsh said, noting the Swords 15s were coached by Frank Proctor from Broadwood.


But it was the Swords seniors which showed the greatest improvement. The former whipping posts of their competition winning both home and away games against Bay of Plenty in the Northern Region play-offs to progress and record a massive upset over Wellington followed by a draw with Otago to take out the NZRL championship title.

The Swords went on to play Waikato in a promotion/ relegation match at Mt Smart but lost thus were prevented from going through to the final but to finish the season with a respectable six wins, one draw and a loss in eight games was a remarkable achievement.

"They cost me [RLN] heaps of money," Marsh laughed, in reference to how the side's ongoing success required more from the RLN coffers to cover travelling cost. Yet he was unable to resist wondering how well the seniors would have done if there hadn't been that rift.

"We would have had a really good Swords team ... "

About that split ... While he wasn't sure if there is a silver bullet to end the Cold War, Marsh proved remarkably diplomatic towards a TRL organisation which, even from the most sympathetic perspective, could only be regarded as a rival.

He firmly believed the two factions should continue working together even if that did make for an uneasy existence.

"As a rebel competition, you can make up your own rules and have no accountability," Marsh said of the TRL without rancour, adding, "I'm all for them playing footy. Whether they are playing in NZRL registered competition or not, I am all for them. They have a great competition going up there."

It was noted there had been two meetings between the RLN and TRL head honchos, Dave Bristow and Hone Harawira, in recent weeks. One took place only last week while a delegate from the NZRL had attended the earlier engagement.

Both times an offer had been made for the breakaway group to return and operate under the wing of the governing body. Both times rejected.

"They [NZRL] were offering them to become a district under the RLN. That would allow the TRL to go to funding organisations to fund their game, and run a senior rep team in the same competition that the Swords play in."

"In the ideal world, TRL would have their own district, look after their own comp and it would be sanctioned. But they can't at the moment because they are not registered with the national sporting body."

While the current zoning structure - supposedly nearing the end of its 10-year tenure - leaves little leeway for compromise, the RLNZ review currently underway had potential to allow more flexibility for the TRL to operate under the RLN umbrella. As it is, Marsh believed the TRL's official stance is that a return to the fold isn't worth the effort.

"It's not happening. Maybe it doesn't work for them. But they have a kaupapa they started up and they are sticking with it."

It was still of concern that talented players in the Far North no longer had a traditional pathway to provincial and national honours although he understood players could still step up through Maori rugby league and onwards to the NRL via internal networks.

In the meantime, Marsh reiterated his organisation remained accessible to negotiations.

"There's always hope ... Everything evolves. My offer is for anybody to come and talk to me."