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All Blacks FEATURE: Heartland XV wrap up big season with rare Marist scalp

James Mortimer     11 Nov 2013    

Playing with a strong breeze that became mighty as the match progressed, the Heartland XV racked up a healthy 18-0 lead at halftime, putting together the coaches instructions with pleasing accuracy.

Basing their game around a kicking and territorial platform, the Heartland side looked where possible to then outflank the big Marist side, with East Coast’s Whaimotu Craft-Chemis and Mid Canterbury’s Dwayne Burrows having speed to burn.

It was the latter who benefited when West Coast first five-eighth Tim Priest set up a wonderful wiping kick to allow Burrows to score the game’s first try.

Priest, who had the ball on a string despite the winds from the nearby port creating some testing conditions, then made a powerful run allowing quick phase ball for the Heartland team – which led to East Coast midfielder TK Moeke scoring the second try.

The perfect performance in the first half changed as the powerful Marist team gained the wind advantage.

The New Zealand Marist team, who select their players from anyone who represents a Marist club (potentially resulting in Super Rugby or ITM Cup players turning out for the side), opened the scoring in the second stanza.

Powerful flanker Jossan Levien, who was part of the Chiefs development team this year, began try proceedings with Marist, but the Heartland team hit back quickly with a try to Mid Canterbury’s Jon Dampney.

Priest, at this stage one with the rugby ball, slotted over a superb sideline conversion despite kicking against the force of Mother Nature.

Marist threatened a fightback when North Otago forward Uilisoni Tahituna crossed over, but that play ended the scoring action.

The third quarter was patchy from the Heartland XV as they emptied their bench, while legs appeared heavy as the toll of a long season began to tell on a playing group that is classed as amateur.

The final score line ensured the side, selected wholly from players who participate in the Pink Batts Heartland Championship, completed a rare perfect season.

The victory over Marist, just the team’s second, has evened up the ledger after the Catholic club based outfit won the first three matches of the burgeoning rivalry.

The matches this year, part of a two-yearly cycle of home and away tours, came after the Heartland XV toured Samoa in 2012 for the third time.

The Heartland XV (which replaced the Divisional XV in 2006) played Marist, Apia and Samoa A last season, while they have toured to other countries – notably Argentina when the team's name change took effect.

This year’s campaign was an interesting one as the balance of power in the Heartland Championship shifted, which resulted in a bigger spread of players from the provincial unions than ever before.

Heartland manager Chris Back said this was one of the many challenges when the squad assembled.

“We only had a short turnaround once the Meads and Lochore Cups were concluded,” Back said.

“So it wasn’t about much more than getting everyone on the same page.

“For weeks these guys were bashing each other, and suddenly they needed to be team-mates.

“It was a good outcome in the end with a great culture and many of the boys would have made new friends.”

Technically a New Zealand representative team, Back said the two-match program was a critical part of these player’s careers, and in some cases, further development.

“For our guys it is an opportunity to put on a black jersey,” he said.

“For a lot of those players it is the pinnacle.

“While some of them will go to higher honours, these are amateur players who use this opportunity to have their time in the sun.”

Back had noticed that the professionalism of the players had gone up a notch, observing that everything from their physical condition to their head space was at a high level, saying that many had put their hands up over the last month.

“The likes of Priest, Burrow and of course captain Peter Rowe have had strong campaigns,” Back said.

“Pete (Rowe) especially was brilliant, he had a rough season with Wanganui struggling so he really led the team from the front.”

The fixture against Marist was a historic one as the Heartland XV was presented with New Zealand Rugby’s newest trophy.

The MacRae Cup, named after current NZR President and former All Black Ian MacRae (ONZM), also a Marist man, will now be on offer whenever the Heartland XV take on the Marist selection.

Rowe and his team-mates were honoured to be part of a special piece of Heartland rugby when presented with the trophy, as the side hangs up their boots for a well-earned rest.

Although such a word may not apply to these players, most of whom have already settled back into their ‘normal’ jobs, as they will be back in training before the New Year.

Many players begin their pre-season early January, for club competitions, such as the Wanganui club competition, commence in March and are completed by August.

Just in time for players to commence what will be the 2014 competition.

Most of the players, with full-time jobs, only technically have “three to four” more weeks off from rugby than their professional counterparts, but are proud to represent an important tier of New Zealand Rugby.

While they continue to give back and promote where they can, with the team taking part in a special visit to Tekapo School.

The small little institution, in the MacKenzie region overlooking the Southern Alps, boasts a few dozen students who along with parents and teachers took part in a old fashioned Kiwi Heartland Barbecue.

The afternoon was spent playing rugby, coaching the kids and spreading the rugby word on full bellies.

At the end, the Heartland players performed a special Haka for the awe-struck children – many of whom would have made the trek to Timaru to watch such a wonderful tier that has a unique place in the Kiwi rugby landscape.

NZ Heartland XV 25
(Dwayne Burrows, TK Moeke, Jon Dampney tries; Tim Priest 2 pen, 2 con)

NZ Marist 12
(Jossan Levien, Uilisoni Tahituna tries; Josh Hall con)