They haven't won a competition match since September 2013. Yet players for the Ngāti Porou East Coast rugby side still travel from as far away as Auckland to play for the area they love. As the team prepares for the upcoming Heartland Championship – and a bid to end their 42-match losing streak - Neil Reid went into camp to find out why they keep going.
The 16-hour return road trip every week in itself is a mission. But doing it to play for a rugby team that hasn't won a competition game since 2013 might seem to some, absurd.
But during club and provincial seasons, loose forward Te Teira Maxwell leaves his home at Devonport, where he works as a physical training instructor for the Navy, on a Friday morning - normally with his partner and two kids in tow - for the town of Ruatoria, home of Heartland Championship battlers Ngāti Porou East Coast.
The team has been unable to savour the sweet taste of a victory beer post a Heartland Championship match in six years.
The 42-game losing streak is the longest in the championship's history. The last time they won, Prince George was two months old, Len Brown was about to be re-elected as the mayor of Auckland before news of an extramarital affair, and a 16-year-old Lorde was receiving rave reviews after the release of her debut studio album Pure Heroine. Nelson Mandela was still alive.
They're not just small losses. In their current streak, there have been 21 matches where East Coast have conceded 50 points or more, including a 100-7 hammering by South Canterbury last year.
"It is never our intention to get beaten . . . we turn up every week with a clear goal of winning," says co-coach Troy Para snr.
"Over the last three years, we have had a couple of close results and a few big hidings. But you couldn't find a better bunch of young fellas to be coaching."
The team's only glimmer of hope was a couple of pre-season results including a win last year against an Eastern Bay of Plenty selection that could only muster 13 players.
There are many famous long-losing streaks by teams around the world.
The Washington Generals lost 2495 to the Harlem Globetrotters in the 1950s to 1970s, although it is widely known they were a showpiece in the clashes.
And American college basketball side the Caltech Beavers' 26-year conference game-losing streak was finally broken in 2011.
But could East Coast be New Zealand's biggest sporting losers?
Southland's current 20-game losing streak in the Mitre 10 Cup is the worst in that competition's history. The New Zealand Knights lost 11 games in a row during the 2005 A-League season. And the All Blacks have twice lost five tests in a row – in 1949 and 1998.
Given the widespread nature of the East Coast province, even some players living within its catchment, or in nearby Gisborne, face four-hour return trips to training.
But coaches have no choice but to draw in players from around the traps - Ruatoria in the last Census had a population of just 750.
"We pay [the boys] $150 a week for the Heartland Championship," Para says.
"Once you pay your petrol to training and then you take a day off work [the day before match day], that $150 doesn't cover it all. We draw on a lot of players from Gisborne, players who want to come back and represent their whanau. At some stage, it must get wearisome for them because it is a big commitment to travel back twice a week to train."
The travelling members of the team - and some of the Coast-based players - sleep on mattresses on the floor of the Te Aowera Marae - about an 11-minute drive from their home ground of Whakarua Park - where players pitch in with the vacuuming, setting tables, dishes and some catering.
Most players have a connection to the area. Maxwell's partner has close links to club team Ruatoria City.
"I have a look around and her father [Ben Reedy] was in the [East Coast] team that got the big W [title triumph] in the 1999 Third Division and her Papa [Alec Reedy] also wore that club jersey."
The 16-hour trip is worth it, not only to fulfil his dream of playing rep footy. It also enables his young children to get a special slice of "Coastie" upbringing.
"We live so far away from the East Coast that is good to be able to bring them back and catch up with their whanau."
The 29-year-old – who was brought up in Rotorua – described his pride in wearing the jersey as "mean", adding it also meant the world to his partner and her family.
But it wasn't a royal welcome from some opposition fans when he made his club debut.
"[Some] people were yelling at me telling me to 'F off home', that I wasn't from here and who did I think I was playing for this team."
The response "fired up" Maxwell. He enjoyed his baptism of fire and then the "beers and good feed" both teams shared afterwards.
His commitment was cemented after returning for his next club game.
"After the game, they pulled out a hangi and there were also 50 crays - and that was me . . . I was sold after that."
Despite the losses, the fans keep coming, heading to Whakarua Park or listening to radio commentaries and watching live streams of their away games.
Rugby is much more than a sport on the East Coast; with the 15-man code viewed by many as a religion and its provincial team one of the key representatives of the Ngāti Porou iwi.
Among the East Coast's long-suffering fans is Leonie Walker, whose brother Graeme played for the side between 1991-2005, and whose son, Isaia Walker-Leawere, is now a star player for the Hurricanes and the Māori All Blacks.
"It is hard because you [ask], shall I or shan't I go to the home games?" Walker says. "But you go because it is your Coast team. But . . . it is sad.
"Staunch fans and family are standing by the team. And because it is Ngāti Porou East Coast you stick by your team. We are ever-living, ever-loving."
Walker says the 15-man code is "the only thing" that brings everyone together on the East Coast.
"And we have all been brought up in the rugby arena from day dot"
But success has been felt – and celebrated at legendary lengths.
In 1999 the "Sky Blues" - who All Black great George Nepia proudly played for - became the poster boys of provincial rugby when they turned around years of under-achieving by winning the Third Division crown.
More than 5000 people crammed into Whakarua Park to witness the 18-15 final win over neighbouring Poverty Bay; including hundreds who watched the action from vantage points on the back of trucks and utes parked sideline.
A year later they beat North Otago 25-21 in the final in Oamaru. The celebrations for the players began on their chartered flight back to Gisborne, where hundreds of fans decked out in sky blue waited for them at the airport; before travelling the 129km north to Ruatoria in a convoy where the party really started.
For two years the gold-plated trophy had pride of place on a ledge behind the bar of the Ruatoria Hotel.
In 2001 the team came within a whisker of winning the Second Division final, going down 30-27 at Napier's McLean Park. Celebrations were so legendary after the final that by the time the team and supporters had finished up at the Clive Hotel, the bar had almost been drunk dry; with just a handful of RTDs remaining for post-closing staff drinks.
They were times that Walker fondly remembers, including a lot of "mean parties"
Further success was celebrated on the East Coast when the side won the Meads Cup over Wanganui, in 2012. The match featured a mass motivational haka from members of the crowd at halftime and a pitch invasion after Verdon Bartlett's match-winning try.
Not only did the 2012 final win put the team back on the map, but it also secured them a Ranfurly Shield challenge; with holders Waikato taking the famed 'Log o' Wood' to Ruatoria for the clash in mid-2013, where again thousands packed the sidelines of Whakarua Park. But the Mitre 10 Cup heavyweights won the clash.
But for now, those golden memories are just that . . . memories of a golden time of heartland footy.
So what keeps driving a team who have struggled for so long? As well as the fans, all involved in East Coast rugby agree it is one thing that no other provincial side has; playing for their iwi.
Pride is instilled in players from a young age up and down the East Coast, firstly in the local club competition where clubs are hapu and whanau-based.
"When you pull your jersey on you are representing your hapu, you are representing your father, your grandfather, your great-grandfather who all played for the club before you," Para says.
"And club rugby is competitive both on and off the field around the coast. Once the game is finished the battle is done until you get into the kitchen. Your ability to host your visitors becomes a competition in its own right."
The team is put to work during marae stays before home games. Duties dished out include vacuuming the wharenui, setting tables, dishes and some catering.
"I don't know how many Heartland coaches are out there making their team's breakfast, bro. Or doing the dishes," says Para, a pathways tutor for Eastern Institute of Technology students seeking careers in the police or armed services.
"And there wouldn't be too many Heartland players used to packing down tables or doing the dishes after their meals . . . but that is the way it is up here and that is the way we like it."
The Ngāti Porou East Coast Rugby Union is the country's only iwi-based union. The side was also the first provincial union to adopt its own pre-match haka.
Para says the commitment shown by his players – especially given the tough times the side has endured on the field – is outstanding, adding the challenges they faced in getting to training would be "mind-boggling" for rival coaches to comprehend.
Co-coach Wayne Ensor says the cultural aspects provide a "deep meaning" which few from outside the region would be able to understand, while Para says pride in the iwi was a huge motivator.
"What keeps our heads up? Inherently it is because we are representing something bigger than ourselves. We are representing the iwi."
And coaching involves a lot more than just recruiting, talent identification, overseeing training and picking 23-strong squads each week.
For Para and Ensor, you can also add in extra roles including driving Ruatoria-bound vans from Gisborne for training – picking up players along the way at Tolaga Bay and Tokomaru Bay - as well as dishes duty after meals during marae stays, and cooking the team breakfast on match day.
Ensor – who played for neighbouring rivals Poverty Bay during his own career – says the losing streak had been tough mentally on both players and coaches alike, adding everyone was "so desperate to do well".
He says getting that elusive win would be akin to smashing through a "huge mental barrier" for his players.
"I can't speak highly enough of those players . . . they never seem to lack belief, and neither do we."
No one in the East Coast team was immune to the heartache after narrowly failing to end the proud province's losing streak during last year's Heartland Championship.
With just a few minutes to go in a tense clash against Poverty Bay at Whakarua Park the side seemed set to finally taste victory again.
At halftime, when East Coast was leading 14-5, the excitement over the side's hopes of finally winning was highlighted by Ngāti Porou East Coast Rugby Union president and ex-player Bailey Mackey who made a shout-out during his match commentary for someone to replace him so he could start his celebrations early.
For Hawke's Bay-based Perrin Manuel - who makes a 10-hour return trip for the team - the eventual 26-19 loss hit harder than any other defeat he had suffered since debuting in the 2013 season.
About two weeks earlier, his 30-year-old sister Jaydene, died in a car crash in the Hawke's Bay. During the late 1990s-early 2000s golden era of rugby on the coast, the then youngsters were common sights around the team as young fans following their dad Joe McClutchie's coaching.
McClutchie guided the team to the 1999 and 2000 Third Division titles.
The first match after Jaydene's death saw the coasters beaten 100-7 by South Canterbury.
Manuel did not play but made his return to the team against Poverty Bay.
"Troy and Wayne were telling me not to play but I was adamant I was going to play.
"The old man presented the jerseys that day and it was pretty emotional before the game. The bros got up and played some good footy."
For much of the match, it seemed East Coast would win the round five Heartland Championship match.
Para says the nature of the loss was "heartbreaking . . . not only for Wayne and I but heartbreaking for the boys".
But despite the distance, Manuel travels and heartbreak over losing, a desire to play for the team his dad had coached so proudly and successfully made any sacrifices worthwhile.
"I do it because it means a lot to me. Being around the team from a young age I was always keen to play for them.
"We were were all proud of those coast teams [that his dad coached]. I was right in the thick of it. Even though I was young I remember them as good years."
View this post on Instagram
A post shared by Scotty J Stevenson (@sumostevenson) on
As the 2019 Heartland Championship beckons, Ensor says there is no getting away from the fact that both he and Para are "under the pump".
At times like this, he says it is imperative both the coaches could call on "good memories to keep going".
The latter for Ensor – a Gisborne-based school teacher - happened in camp at Te Aowera Marae on the day of his first game in charge in the team in 2016.
"The players did haka practice during the night and then in the morning they did the haka outside and the mist was just clearing off Mt Hikurangi.
"It was quite surreal looking up at their maunga and I remember fighting back the tears. Even today, I will be away somewhere and will think about it and well up again. It was such a good memory."
So what will East Coast players, team management and fans do when the side finally end their record losing streak? That question is regularly asked in the isolated region.
According to Manuel, the winless period has gone so long that some players are lost for ideas on just how they would mark the end of it.
"After we won in 2016 in the Queen's Birthday [pre-season] game the bros didn't know what to do. We all just went home . . . it was almost like we celebrated more when we lose.
"It has gotten to the point where we wouldn't know what to do. It is uncharted territory now."
Maxwell knows a few well-deserved beers will be savoured.
While upbeat about the season hopes, he isn't ready to say this will be a year when the East Coast's fortunes to turn.
"[If we win a game this year] I would probably be pulling a sickie on the Monday and probably the Tuesday as well," he jokes.
"But in all honesty, hopefully, it comes sooner rather than later. The boys are pretty excited about this year . . . we are all keen to get in amongst it."
One thing is for sure and that is Para won't be at the centre of celebrations.
After doing all in his power to try and secure a competition win over the past three seasons – with successive defeats cutting hard to the proud coach – he revealed he would need some solitude to soak up the relief that a success would bring.
"I will probably find a spot nice and quiet to myself and have a bit of a beer . . . a nice quiet beer.
"And it will be somewhere where people won't be able to see my huge smile."
Down and out: Famous sporting losing streaks
2495: The Washington Generals went on tour with one purpose in the 1950s to 1970s; to lose day in, day out to the Harlem Globetrotters.
310: American college basketball side the Caltech Beavers' 26-year conference game losing streak was finally broken in 2011.
269: Curt Hawkins had to endure a staggering 269 losses in the WWE between 2016 and April 2019 before he was finally allowed to win in the ring.
160: Races trotting mare Kelly Evander went in her racing career winless. The Kiwi horse's best results were two second-placings.
113: Japanese horse Haru Urara is believed to be one of the least successful racing horses of all time. It still had a cult following in Japan, including a wide range of fan merchandise and a movie based on its losing record.
92: City College New York lacrosse's team finally ended their losing streak in 1988 with a 9-8 overtime win.
61: San Marino's international football decade-long streak ended with a draw against Estonia. During the 10 years of defeats, they conceded 277 goals, while scoring just eight.
44: Games the West Coast rugby team lost in a row in both Third Division and pre-season clashes.
42: The University club went winless from April 1934 to August 1936 in the New South Wales Rugby League; now known as the NRL.
29: The Chicago Cardinals were beaten by all-comers between October 1942 to October 1945 in the NFL.
28: International cricket matches lost by Bangladesh in succession between 2003-2004. The streak included 18 one-day internationals and 10 tests.
21: American tennis player went from the world's top 20 in 1999 to drop down to world No 237 after a record 21 successive losses on the ATP tour.
20: Southland's current losing streak in the Mitre 10 Cup – the worst in New Zealand top-flight provincial rugby - which they will be out to end this season.
15: Sunderland went four months winless in the 2002-03 Premier League on their way to relegation from the top flight.
11: Loses by the New Zealand Knights in a row during the 2005 A-League season. It is still a record for the league.
5: The All Blacks have twice lost five tests in a row – in 1949 and 1998. In 1949, the All Blacks had the ignominy of losing two tests within 24 hours in two parts of the world. A whites-only team selected so as not to upset the South African regime lost 9-3 to the Springboks in Johannesburg, while 11,757km away in Wellington an All Black side featuring Maori players who weren't picked to tour and other back-up players lost 11-6 to the Wallabies.