For a provincial rugby union in the professional era, you'd think its biggest investment would be in players.

For the Bay of Plenty Union, you'd be wrong.

It's real estate.

The purchase of three apartment units near the Blake Park headquarters in Mt Maunganui is, according to chief executive Mike Rogers, "the biggest investment the union's ever made."


What's more, they're leasing the property next door.

But there's a reason for getting involved in what might be called non-core activities.

It provides accommodation to out of town players attracted to Tauranga as part of the union's academy programme, the fruits of which were on display last Saturday night in Taupo with the Bay of Plenty triumph in the Jock Hobbs Memorial National Under 19 tournament.

That team was coached by Mike Rogers. But not the CEO. They're different men with the same name.

Since the professional rugby era began in the mid 1990s - and in some cases even before that - provincial unions have run academies to train and prepare those in their later teenage years to play first class rugby.

They've been co-ordinated, and partly funded, through New Zealand Rugby. Bay of Plenty had its academy too, but it wasn't having much effect.

"Historically, we've been a net exporter of rugby talent. Boys would leave the region after finishing school. Once they left school, they'd leave the region," says Rogers.

Scott Robertson and Jared Hoeta are two Tauranga-born and raised All Blacks of the last 20 years who come to mind quickly on that score. A current All Black halfback Te Toiroa Tahuriorangi left Rotorua Boys' High School in 2013 to play rugby in New Plymouth.


About three years ago, Bay of Plenty Rugby made a strategic decision to change things.

"In order to be sustainable long term, we had to get our house in order. We want to have a strong Steamers team and we want more of our young people getting into New Zealand teams and to go on and play for the Chiefs in Super Rugby," says Rogers.

Through funding from New Zealand Rugby for an academy manager and with support from local businesses like Classic Builders and Aotea Electric, the local union started making conscious efforts to develop relationships with young players, and their schools and parents.

"A lot of credit on this score must go to James Porter, as the academy manager, and to (Steamers coach) Clayton McMillan."

But developing relationships is one thing. Providing the right environment is another. That's where the decision to buy the accommodation units came from.

While the number one priority in recruiting players was to retain local talent from the likes of Tauranga Boys' College and Rotorua Boys' High School, the union knew it would have to go beyond the Bay of Plenty borders. That meant offering not just a good rugby opportunity but assistance with a place to live in a city where rents are high and suitable accomodation scarce.

But those who stay there have to be self sufficient. They are paying rent. They have to cook for themselves, although the rugby union does provide assistance with a nutritionist advising what should and shouldn't be eaten.

"For most of the boys coming into our programme, it's their first time either away from home or away from a boarding school establishment where everything was done for them," says Rogers.

"So they're learning to look after themselves too. That's all part of growing as young people."

With 11,700 players of all ages, Bay of Plenty is the third largest provincial rugby union in the country, in terms of player numbers, after Auckland and Canterbury.

The ambition now is to retain the area's top talent and to augment that by attracting quality players from outside who, for a variety of reasons, slipped through their home union's talent filter.

Steamers flanker Mitch Karpik, born, raised and schooled in Auckland is an early example of that.

In the victorious Under 19 team last week, Lalomilo Lalomilo came from De la Salle College in Auckland, Jayjay Suemai from nearby Aorere College and Dennon Robinson from Hastings Boys' High School.

Add those players to the likes of Kaleb Trask and Kaipo Brown out of Rotorua Boys' High School, and Leroy Carter, Cole Forbes and Gordie Lloyd from Tauranga Boys' College and the mix starts to look very impressive – if a bit lacking in the forwards area.

"Success breeds success," say Rogers.

"We're gaining credibility in the New Zealand environment. We're being regarded as a real option now by players from other provinces."

"Our number one thing is to deliver the best academy programme in the country."

Two more things have helped as well - the city's growing tertiary education opportunities, and the weather.

There's already a close relationship with Toi Ohomai and the Windermere campus. With the University of Waikato campus opening in the Tauranga city centre next year, more options to combine rugby with study become available.

And while Rogers says the weather, and the proximity of Mount beaches to the Blake Park headquarters, isn't a major reason for young players coming here it is, he says, "the icing on the cake."

The academy is not just about young men too. With women's rugby the major growth area in the sport, there's an increasing interest in the programme among high school-age girls.

But what do these teenagers do when they're not training or planning for rugby?

Yes, there is considerable strength and conditioning work needed in the University of Waikato Adams Centre for High Performance.

As well though, James Porter sees part of his role as academy manager is to get his players involved in the community. So they're volunteering for St Vincent de Paul, doing things like driving vans and delivering furniture.

Others are working as teacher aides at local schools.

Rogers says many of the players themselves come from at risk backgrounds. By being involved with others of similar backgrounds, they can show ways to improve their lot in life.

"Not all our academy players will be All Blacks or Super Rugby players," says Rogers, "but we want them to leave our programme as good people".