Wairarapa-Bush hooker Joe Harwood captained the New Zealand Heartland rugby side to wins in both their matches on their brief United States tour last week, and came away impressed with the physical strength of the opposition forwards.
Harwood, who returned to his Masterton home yesterday, was delighted with the victories over the Pacific Coast XV in San Francisco (35-12) and the American selection (19-14) at Salt Lake City but conceded the Heartland forwards had to work overtime to measure up in the tighter aspects of the forward game, particularly the ruck and maul.
"A lot of the forwards we were up against had played grid iron and they were very strong in the upper body, it was hard to move them around," Harwood said. "They had good body position in the rucks and mauls too, they were technically very sound there."
Adding to the difficulties for the Heartland players at maul time was that refereeing interpretations tended to be different than what they are in New Zealand and Harwood said his side struggled to come with terms with that fact, especially in the second game when many of the penalties awarded against them were difficult to understand.
"They obviously play to a different set of rules than we do and we had no option but to adjust," Harwood said.
"It made life interesting at times for a captain, I can tell you."
Harwood was "absolutely rapt" with the strong spirit which quickly developed in the Heartland squad with everybody giving 100 per cent to the team effort, both on and off the field.
"It was fantastic the way all the players helped each other, and the management was superb. It was a terrific experience to be part of," he said.
Harwood himself played for all but the last 10 minutes or so of both games, the most intense of which was the "test" against the American selection with the Heartland team needing a late try to secure the win.
A former Wairarapa-Bush player in Hamish McKenzie started at halfback in the opening match and came off the reserve bench in the second while looking after the medical side of things for the New Zealand team was Carterton doctor David Heard, who filled the same role for the Wairarapa-Bush squad during their 2008 Heartland campaign.
Harwood said he was now looking forward to a restful time over the summer months with any mention of rugby being banned from his household.
"It's been a long season and it's going to be nice to have a break from the game for a while," he said, adding that wife Nicola and their family would now be the centre of his attention. "I reckon they might have earned it," he quipped.
This season was the third successive year Harwood had been named captain of the national Heartland side. In 2006 he led them on a short tour of Argentina while last year the team was a "paper selection" only with no games being organised for them then.