Well, after 15 years, he finally made it there.

Steelform Wanganui's Craig Clare has had a long and glittering career, starting in 2003 as a young playmaker with Manawatu and then moving onto the Highlanders.

Yet many of his old team mates and coaches who went on to fame with the All Blacks and in Super Rugby were surprised to see him at the 2018 ASB NZ Rugby Awards in Auckland on Thursday night.

Clare laughed at the analogy that he hasn't exactly dropped off the radar – being one of the stars and a multiple time Meads Cup winner in the Mitre 10 Heartland Championship – it's just all his former colleagues have their radars attuned to a higher altitude.

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"That's probably a perfect way to say it," said the 34-year-old Rabobank manager said after flying back into Palmerston North this afternoon.

"I saw my old Highlanders coach, the Otago coach.

"[Kieran Read] came over to have a talk with me. A fair few people were surprised to see me there."

Read, the All Black captain, even made a special mention of Clare before announcing the winner of the Mitre 10 Heartland Championship Player of the Year, in which the fullback turned first-five was up against South Canterbury's halfback Willie Wright, 25, and Thames Valley's flanker Brett Ranga, 27.

"To be honest, I'm pretty glad," said Read, who has faced public discussions about his effectiveness leading into his final World Cup campaign next year.

"One of the nominees I played with in Under 19's, so he's still going alright, just like myself, so that's good."

Clare remembers it well.

"I played with the New Zealand Colts with him, he might have been 19, I think I'm a year older than him."

Unfortunately, the two old team mates did not get a picture on the dais together as it was Ranga who was announced as the Heartland Player of the Year.

It was an outcome Clare was honestly expecting, given Thames Valley had won their first Meads Cup with two upset playoff victories, celebrated by the pundits as the great underdog rugby story of 2018.

"It was just pretty awesome just to be there. It was an awesome experience," Clare said.

He also confirmed that the real party doesn't start until after the Sky Sport live telecast ends at around 10.30pm.

"It does drag on a bit.

"You can pop in and out of it, and refresh or whatever you like. And then afterwards everyone goes through to the bar."

Nonetheless, the citation and highlights package of Clare before the awards announcement was very complimentary to his efforts in 2018.

"Wanganui's Craig Clare showed his class during this year's Heartland Championship, organising probably the most lethal backline in the competition throughout the season," it said.

"Vice captain for the NZ Heartland XV, Clare went on to star in their two matches, dotting down against the invitational Fiji side."

Looking ahead to 2019, Clare confirmed he is keen to saddle up for representative rugby one more time.

Having been a double rugby-cricket representative locally, he is likely to give the summer game a miss this season to get his body right for another winter campaign, as he will be transferring from the champion Ruapehu club to join Border in Waverley so he can be closer to home.

"I'm definitely keen to have another crack at [the Meads Cup]," Clare said.

"It was a tough pill to swallow, that semifinal."

Thames Valley rode the momentum of that famous upset to beat South Canterbury in Timaru in the final the following week, which saw them nominated for the new adidas National Team of the Year award, which ultimately went to the Crusaders on Thursday night.

It will be a sore point with Wanganui that this award category did not exist while they were winning the Meads Cup for three seasons in a row.

"If you watched it, they didn't even talk about South Canterbury [in Thames Valley's citation], it was all about beating Wanganui," Clare said.

"We talked about complacency all year, because we had a tough draw. Every team plays their best against us.

"[That semifinal], it could happen to the best of teams. It even happens to the All Blacks."

In being interviewed by presenter Scotty Stevenson, the quiet Ranga confirmed the rumour that many of the Swampfoxes had not even taking their playing jersey's off by the Monday morning following the final, as the celebrations carried through.

"I think they just enjoyed every second of that.

"It was pretty huge, just creating history I guess, and good fun."

Tactfully, when probed Ranga did not rate winning both the Meads Cup and a club championship with Waihi FC as being superior to getting engaged and becoming a father for the first time in 2018, given his partner was in the audience.

"They're all pretty good."

Ranga thanked his club for being a big supporter, given the rumour was the local bar they all use laid big money at the TAB on the Swampfoxes upsetting Wanganui at Cooks Gardens on October 20.

"They'll definitely be watching, I'd like to thank everyone back at Waihi for the support.

"There's a huge amount of support back there for the whole season."

Unfortunately former Whanganui High and Feilding Ag prospect Vilimoni Koroi also missed out on an award for the second year in a row, as the Richard Crawshaw Memorial All Blacks Sevens Player of the Year prize was claimed by team mate Scott Curry.

"Twenty-year-old Vilimoni Koroi has been setting the sevens scene alight since his debut last year, and has already notched up 133 points on the World Series circuit and crossed the chalk 15 times," read Koroi's video citation.

"His lightning speed and intelligent game play make him a nuisance for defenders and a key part of the All Black Sevens attack."

2018 ASB Rugby Award winners:

Sky Television Fans Try of the Year
Winner: Chris Hala'ufia (St Peter's College)

New Zealand Rugby Referee of the Year
Winner: Glen Jackson (Bay of Plenty)

Charles Monro Rugby Volunteer of the Year
Winner: Irene Eruera-Taiapa (Horowhenua Kapiti)

New Zealand Rugby Age Grade Player of the Year
Winner: Tom Christie (Canterbury)

Mitre 10 Heartland Championship Player of the Year
Winner: Brett Ranga (Thames Valley)

Duane Monkley Medal
Winner: Luke Romano (Canterbury)

Fiao'o Faamausili Medal
Winner: Kendra Cocksedge (Canterbury)

ASB National Coach of the Year
Winner: Alama Ieremia (Auckland)

ASB New Zealand Coach of the Year
Winner: Clark Laidlaw (All Blacks Sevens)

Investec Super Rugby Player of the Year
Winner: Richie Mo'unga (Crusaders)

Tom French Memorial Māori Player of the Year
Winner: Codie Taylor (Ngāti Raukawa / Muaupoko)

Richard Crawshaw Memorial All Blacks Sevens Player of the Year
Winner: Scott Curry (Bay of Plenty)

Black Ferns Sevens Player of the Year
Winner: Michaela Blyde (Bay of Plenty)

New Zealand Rugby Women's Player of the Year
Winner: Kendra Cocksedge (Canterbury)

Kelvin R Tremain Memorial Player of the Year
Winner: Kendra Cocksedge (Canterbury)

adidas National Team of the Year
Winner: Crusaders

adidas New Zealand Team of the Year
Winner: Black Ferns Sevens