As Waikato sit down and reflect on a difficult Mitre 10 Cup campaign, the picture might not be so gloomy depending on the nature of the decisions that are made from here.

Going down 39-21 to Wellington at the weekend put the full stop on 2019 for Waikato in a performance that was fitting of their hit and miss fortunes since competition began in August.

The directive ahead of the season was a simple one, avoid being mid-table battlers. Those were the very words spoken by head coach Andrew Strawbridge when speaking with Hamilton News ahead of the season.

For Strawbridge, the latest in a long-line of coaches to take the helm for Waikato in recent years, miracles weren't expected for what was still a very young side on experience with wider changes to high performance development taking place behind the scenes.


Roger Randle also played a big part in the coaching ranks and veteran forward Ross Filipo's involvement to help-out the struggling lineout didn't go unnoticed.

Waikato finished their Mitre 10 Cup season with three wins, six losses, and a draw. In many ways it was the direct opposite of what was envisioned and it encapsulated a side in transition.

Winning silverware in 2018 to get back into the top-level Premiership division still feels like a stop in the road to where Waikato eventually want to get to.

But to get to the levels of success that Tasman has achieved at the top of the Premiership this season, and potentially going all the way, will require continuity of players the higher performance structures that Strawbridge talked about.

In Fletcher Smith, the Mooloo men have a solid first five with a growing skill set that will only grow in 2020 as the 24-year old will head into the Hurricanes camp as the leading backline runner.

If Smith can get through that season and be available for Waikato once Mitre 10 Cup starts, that's a crucial cog in the wheel already ticked off.

Then there is Quinn Tupaea, one of the region's most exciting prospects who lit up the game every time he took the ball, on top of being a solid defender.

A debut Super Rugby season in 2020 with the Chiefs is ahead for Tupaea, but like Smith, his services will be invaluable to Waikato moving forward as the likes of Anton Lienert-Brown and Sevu Reece will be unlikely play Mitre 10 Cup rugby on a regular basis ever again.


Whether or not veteran midfielder Dwayne Sweeney has another season left in him remains to be seen, but you feel that for Waikato to improve from here, a certain level of transition needs to carry over despite the bad reading sitting second from bottom of the table presents.

The 2020 club season will no doubt breed new prospects to represent Waikato in the Mitre 10 Cup, but the last thing this team needs is to have to rebuild from near scratch again.

That's why it's important to keep the players who've performed well, keep faith in those who've had difficult seasons, like Mitch Jacobson and James Tucker, and double down on the emerging talents who've stepped up to the challenge, like Rivez Reihana and Hamilton Burr.

That's not even mentioning their impressive new halfback Jack Stratton, or the devastating finishing ability of Declan O'Donnell.

Many would look at the likes of Tasman, a team that's gone unbeaten in Mitre 10 Cup, and say that it's all down to having so many Super Rugby players on the roster.

Waikato's big let-down in 2019 was at set piece and discipline, not a measure on their playing roster or lack thereof. Such a view is short sighted and plainly wrong.

What Waikato need more than anything is a bit of consistency, starting with a long-term head coach and surely this is a decision that must be made by the WRU board.

Mitre 10 Cup has changed a lot in recent times and given the fact that players and coaches quickly move on, so such consistency may be hard to master, but simply going through the motions season upon season will result in that position of being the mid-table battler being the reality for a long time to come.

• Michael Pulman is a freelance journalist based in Hamilton and covers rugby, cricket and social issues.