Heartland Championship–Grassroots Grand Final

Heartland Meads Cup - South Canterbury v Buller
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For some provincial rugby fans, the 7:35pm kick-offs are for ‘big city’ rugby fans. More suited to Super Rugby than Heartland Championship–for these loyal fans, the Grassroots Grand Final on Saturday holds all their attention.

The Mitre 10 Heartland Championship is essentially the old division three and four national provincial competitions. Played for today between the 12 ‘grassroots’ unions who compete in a tier below the main NPC championship [Mitre 10 Cup]. Not that it is any less popular–many would say, it is still the traditional base of New Zealand rugby.

Grassroots Grand Final

Two matches will hold the attention of fans from Taupo, to Kurow, four provincial sides will fight it out for two prestigious titles.

The Meads Cup is played for by the top four seeded sides. Named in honour of Sir Colin Meads, it is the premier placing in this division. Challenged by Wanganui, Wairarapa Bush, South Canterbury and Buller in last weeks semi finals–Wanganui ended the season as top qualifiers, and will compete in Saturday’s grand final against Buller.

Heartland Cups
Sir Brian Lachore (L) and Sir Colin Meads stand with the Heartland Rugby trophies that are named after them (Photo by Sandra Mu/Getty Images)

The 5th-8th placed sides compete for the Lochore Cup. Named after Sir Brian Lochore, it has as much respect and legacy as the Meads Cup does. Each cup has the distinction of being named after former All Black captains, and holding either is certainly an honour for any national provincial captain.

Last weekend, King Country, Poverty Bay, Mid Canterbury and North Otago all played it out, to see who might place one hand on the Lochore Cup. King Country ended the season as top qualifier, and will host Saturday’s climax against North Otago.

Heartland Championship reaches it’s conclusion

After a healthy nine week competition, the ‘cream rose to the top’. As much as Wanganui were unbeaten, there were many well-matched games across the season. Beginning on August 27, the results were often predictable–although several draws went against the grain.

As well, the Heartland Championship trialled law variations, including a new points scoring system. Used only in this competition, there are six points awarded for a try, three points for a drop goal and just two points for a penalty. That encourages teams to go for the tryline –good ideals, but not to be repeated in 2017.

Meads Cup final 2016

Wanganui v Buller – Cooks Gardens, 2:35pm

Wanganui offload
Craig Clare of Wanganui looks for support during the Heartland Meads Cup (Photo by Kerry Marshall/Getty Images)

Reigning champions, the ‘Butcher Boys’ from the banks of the Whanganui River are going in as clear favourites. They deserved to: won all eight games played, 420 points for, 136 against. The standings do not lie, and reflect a dominance that has only been question on rare occasion.

Peter Rowe is the seminal provincial captain. The Ruapehu flanker is a multiple Heartland Player of the Year, in a career spanning over 100 games. But the union is more than one player, and men like Steve Crosbie, Te Rangatira Waitokia and the group have worked as a unit all season to reach this point.

For Buller, they will need to replicate form from several years ago. They triumphed 30-40 in the Lochore Cup semi final of 2013, so the team need to take motivation from that. And the South Island team have done exceptionally well to reach this point–they can leave it all out on the field, knowing they have done themselves extremely proud.

Man of the moment James Lash will certainly give them the strongest chance yet. Only tasting success in 2012, in winning the Lochore Cup. A better than expected finish will be just what the West Coast side needs to bring new talent into the region.

Lochore Cup final 2016

King Country v North Otago, Te Kuiti, 2:35pm

King Country
Whakataki Cunningham breaking through the line(Photo by Mead Norton/Getty Images)

King Country will represent the Waitomo district with pride on Saturday. With a rich history, a well prepared side and with good local backing, the side can hope to retain their 2015 title.

With two draws this season, they may well be in the Meads Cup final, so the Rams could have a point to prove. Coach Dan Alofa may ask his men to go out and put on an exhibition; if conditions favour it. While that would suit them, the opposition could ‘put a lid on the celebrations’.

North Otago might not have all the flashy wingers, but they do not lack heart. Expect a stout defensive effort primarily, keep the pressure on and then use the ball wisely. Halfback Robbie Smith may be the key–linking the forwards to the backs. With a cool head, the South Island team could walk away with their first Lochore Cup since 2009.

Heartland Championship Roll of honour:

Meads Cup

  • 2006 Wairarapa Bush
  • 2007 North Otago
  • 2008 Wanganui
  • 2009 Wanganui
  • 2010 North Otago
  • 2011 Wanganui
  • 2012 East Coast
  • 2013 Mid Canterbury
  • 2014 Mid Canterbury
  • 2015 Wanganui

Lochore Cup

  • 2006 Poverty Bay
  • 2007 Poverty Bay
  • 2008 Poverty Bay
  • 2009 North Otago
  • 2010 Wairarapa Bush
  • 2011 Poverty Bay
  • 2012 Buller
  • 2013 South Canterbury
  • 2014 Wanganui
  • 2015 King Country

As broadcast in the weekly NZ Rugby Grandstand column, the game is strong. Grassroots grand final is more often the best example of rugby values–the sense of family, friends and mates. Men and women you have played with, worked together for a single cause, which after all is the epitome of any team sport.

This weekend it is celebrated, as much as the province. Good luck to all sides competing in the Heartland Championship, as well as the Mitre 10 Cup.

“Main photo credit”