Last week Mitchell Hunt announced he was returning to Nelson to play his rugby. The former Nelson College 1st XV star got us thinking about how many other local lads are playing professional rugby outside our region.
Mitchell Hunt, Kaide Whiting, Mitchell Drummond, Ben May, James Marshall, Dan Hyatt.
What do they all have in common? These Nelson lads all play their rugby for provinces other than Tasman.
In fact, of the fourteen provincial unions competing in the ITM Cup Premiership and Championship, ten have a Nelsonian playing for them. Of those unions, Tasman is – obviously – the most heavily represented.
But Auckland, Canterbury, Otago and Wellington all have a local lad in their team, highlighting the depth of rugby in Nelson.
A decade or so ago, you would be lucky to find one Nelson player in the top-flight of the NPC, and none in Super rugby.
This season, 23 players with strong connections to Nelson or Marlborough played super rugby, including Mitchell Scott who played for the Perth-based Western Force.
Tasman Rugby Union president Shane Drummond says it shows how important the Makos have been to providing pathways for local players to excel.
“There’s lot of things that have changed since the Makos have come on the scene and now players are exposed a lot more than they ever were, with the internet and things like that. Even the players who don’t get picked for the Makos are finding contracts because other coaches can see video footage and all that. Scouting players is bigger than ever.”
Most of the players plying their trade for other provinces are top players too.
The sight of former Mako and Nelson College captain James Marshall holding aloft the ITM Cup premiership trophy after his side beat Tasman in last year’s final was hard for many local rugby fans. And he’s far from alone in pulling on enemy colours.
ITM Cup teams that have local players are Auckland (Mitchell Hunt and Sam Prattley), Bay of Plenty (Caleb Hall), Otago (Kaide Whiting and Fletcher Smith), Canterbury (Mitchell Drummond), Southland (Reuben Northover), Wellington (Ben May), Hawkes Bay (Ben Franks), Counties Manukau (Dan Hyatt) and Tasman (plenty).
Shane says there are plenty of reasons why players leave, but he says seeing those players flourish elsewhere shows local rugby is strong. “You see guys like Sam Prattley or James Marshall and they’ve really gone on to thrive for their new province, more than they did for us. Now they’re super rugby players as well.”
There are also plenty of local guys playing rugby overseas. Former Waimea College and Hawkes Bay captain Mike Coman is currently captaining Edinburgh, Kahn Fotuali’i is playing for English side Northampton Saints, Tom Marshall is playing for Gloucester and there are dozens more being paid to play rugby under the top tier of European competition.
Shane says the development of the younger players is helping push competition at the top.
“We have guys sitting and are about to pounce, guys like Quintin Strange and Ethan Blackadder. There’s a group who are getting ready to break through.
“That’s exciting for our region. Some of these guys are leaving school and going straight into an academy scenario, where they are trained by the Makos trainers and they transition pretty quick.”
Mitchell Hunt’s decision to sign with the Makos and the Crusaders signals that the tide can be reversed and Shane believes it will be. “When you have someone like Leon MacDonald call you, or Mark Hammett, you’re going to sit up and take notice, aren’t you? In the past when Nelson Bays rung you or Marlborough rung you, you’d say ‘what do you want?’
“We pulled no clout, now we’ve built the credibility and the respect that we needed and now we have players wanting to come here, we don’t even have to ring,” he says.
This weekend, two of those Nelson-bred stars, now playing for Auckland, will be trying to end the Makos season when they meet in a semi final of the ITM Cup. Local fans will be hoping our development of Mitchell Hunt and Sam Prattley doesn’t come back to haunt us.