As the 2019 Mitre 10 Cup season approaches, rugby fans in Southland wait in anticipation to see if their beloved Stags can do something they haven’t achieved in nearly three years: win a game.
The last time fans were able to celebrate the sweet taste of victory was 1027 days ago. To put that into context John Key was still Prime Minister, Barack Obama was still US President and Sam Cane was captain of the All Blacks.
That fateful day was October 8, 2016 when the Stags beat Northland at Rugby Park Stadium in Invercargill 39-31, and perhaps it’s with some form of fate that the Stags’ opening game of the 2019 season next week is against Northland at the same venue.
Stags coach Dave Hewett understands the frustration of Southland rugby fans over the last three years, and believes the team is in the best position to finally win a game with the lineup put together for 2019.
“It’s no secret that Southland hasn’t performed over the last two to three years and we’re looking to change that,” Hewett said. “We thought we made steps in improvement last year and yes, if you look purely at the points table, we didn’t but there was so much more going on behind the scenes that had to be brought into alignment that will hopefully lead us to being more successful this year.”
The closest the Stags have come to breaking their 21-game losing streak was a four-point defeat to Bay of Plenty last season, and Hewett believes the passion for rugby in the province still shines, despite the lack of the success the team has had recently.
During the squad announcement in Invercargill last month, Hewett said he believed the Stags had the largest proportion of locally-based players in the national competition and said that helped contribute to the passion Southlanders brought in their support.
“I think it’s a really important part but the region also wants to see wins. If you look at the Steel and the Sharks there aren’t too many local players in those teams but they win so the locals really embrace them, which is great. I think for us though, rugby is woven into the fabric of Southland. Like it is in all places in New Zealand. But more so down here I think that rugby is still the major sort of gathering point for a community. Particularly for small communities.”
The squad of 35 players for 2019 includes 26 players from Southland, with Hewett saying other players such as Marty McKenzie and Mike McKee, who have returned to Southland after a few seasons away, can be claimed as locals as well.
The Stags also named star Highlanders number eight Elliot Dixon as part of the squad, however Hewett said with Dixon being contracted to club rugby in Japan it would remain to be seen just how much of a role he would play throughout the season.
Two Australian Super Rugby players will add extra depth to the Stags too, with Lausii Taliauli from the Brumbies and Seb Wileman from the Reds part of the squad.
Hewett said he was impressed with the squad and believed that consistency in the coaching ranks would also help towards an improvement this season.
“I feel we’ve got a really good culture in the group at the moment as well. There is certainly no illusions to the task ahead of us. Not just for the coaches but for the group as well. But from our time together pre-season everyone is aware of the mountain we’ve got to climb. But it’s started really good, really positive and I’m really enjoying it.”
This article was originally written for The Advocate. You can read the published version here