On the day grown men wept unashamedly and a province rejoiced as one, Vern Cotter leaned back against the sparse Eden Park changing room wall and let slip a wry grin.

Mixed in with the elation of claiming the Ranfurly Shield for the first time in Bay of Plenty's history was the certain knowledge that it was going to take a hell of an effort to top this occasion.

Remarkably, eight games later, the side very nearly had, reaching the division one semifinals of the NPC, also for the first time, and capturing the imagination of the country.

Since then, the adulation has been thick and plentiful.

Along with the Shield and the hearts of New Zealand's rugby public, Bay of Plenty won the Sky TV Peoples' Choice team award and have also been nominated for the top team prize at the Steinlager Rugby Awards.

Eleven players will have direct involvement in Super 12 teams when that competition starts in February and both Cotter (Crusaders) and Steamers assistant coach Joe Schmidt (Blues) have been snapped up to help coach franchise teams.

Cotter is also up for the coach of the year title at February's annual rugby awards.

High on the list of converted fans is legendary King Country All Black Colin Meads, who is holidaying in Papamoa this week.

"Bay of Plenty were tremendous - they captured the spirit of New Zealand rugby," Meads said.

"They got so much support that in the end people from all over New Zealand were wanting them to win.

"There's more to a team than just a coach but the coach is the bloke who gets the team on track and Vern set the seal on that." Meads coached Cotter when the latter had a short stint with King Country but he probably wouldn't have witnessed the neat sidestep Cotter employed when told of the honour. Cotter, a 42-year-old farmer from the back-blocks of Te Puke, quickly shuffled the plaudits on to the band of brave players he fused together.

"One of the simple policies of this past season was 'the team comes first' and the team did come through," Cotter reflected.

"It was the team that beat Auckland for the Ranfurly Shield and it was the team that came through and made the semifinals.

"It's a special team and it's nice that they are getting the recognition." For all the modesty, it's a theory former All Black coach John Hart doesn't buy into for a second. Hart delighted in Bay of Plenty's performances through the season, as they confirmed the adage of a champion team beating teams chock full of champions, but laid most of the acclaim on the quality of the coaching.

"It's a great credit to Vern Cotter - they obviously had a very good environment, picked a game plan which was simple and played to their strengths, and had a team which went out and played whole-heartedly for the whole 80 minutes," Hart said.

"It was an excellent coaching performance because they worked with players who weren't name players and produced the goods." It's taken three years of hard work for the rewards to come however - Cotter's first year in charge resulted in an agonising promotion-relegation battle with Hawke's Bay, but they improved considerably to finish fifth last year.

Only with this season's third-placing could he finally see the fruits of his labours.

"He's brought in good structures, from management right through to the players, on and off the field," veteran forward Paul Tupai said. "Nothing has really changed over the three years - it's just been fine-tuned from the first year through to the third year, where it's really showed.

"He's one of those guys who if you're honest with him and perform for him, he'll stick with you through thick and thin." Cotter is something of an old-school rugby personality who doesn't suffer fools, has been known to scream himself hoarse at training and likes to 'go bush' in the off-season. But the flip side is a sharply analytical coach, a doting dad of 18-month-old Holly and a fluent French speaker with a love of fine red wine, courtesy of a decade-long stint in France as a player and coach during the 1990s.

In 2001 he topped the theory exams of the NZRU's high performance coaching module - an effort made considerably more impressive by the presence of John Mitchell, Bryce Woodward, Ian Foster and Allan Pollock on the same course.

He's assembled a remarkably effective management team led by Craig Morris. And Cotter rejoins the Crusaders next week for his five-month Super 12 stint with the quiet satisfaction that things can still get better for Bay of Plenty rugby.

"People probably underestimated how much work those players had put in over the last couple of years and how much they really wanted to go through," Cotter said.

"We didn't have the full skill package. We're still not up to scratch physically and we've still got a long way to go in the professional era.

"But we certainly made up for those short-fallings with guts and effort and that's probably what the general public saw and associated with."