A rugby team which embraced the sport’s early steps towards professionalism reunited to celebrate its status as provincial champions 30 years ago.
The Thames Valley Rugby Union’s senior representative team played through the 1988 season unbeaten in the division 3 competition, winning all seven games, amassing 284 points for, with just 42 scored against.
The team also won six out of its seven non-championship games, including landmark victories against division 1 team Counties and division 2’s King Country.
The 25-7 win over Counties remained the largest victory by a team in division 3, over a division 1 side.
Those games and many more were remembered when 18 players, coaches and managers from the Thames Valley championship-winning team gathered for their reunion in Te Aroha.
The event, at the Cobras rugby club rooms, was held before the Heartland Championship match between Thames Valley and Horowhenua-Kapiti, played next door at Boyd Park on Saturday.
It was appropriate because the final game of the 1988 season was between the two provinces.
Among the speakers at the reunion was the team’s 1988 selector and coach Colin Cooper.
“In 1987 I think we were the bottom team in New Zealand, or pretty close.
“So at the end of that season, we went about getting all of the players we wanted to have the best Valley side available.”
There were some players on the list who were reluctant to join and it required some convincing from Cooper and fellow selector and coach, Brian Duggan.
“We got everyone that we wanted to play for us and that was a huge step. We had a fantastic backline, young boys that had great skills and panache.
“Our forward pack, never got much ball, but we could guarantee we were going to eat every other forward pack in New Zealand.”
The team ripped through their opponents with some big wins, including 60-0 against West Coast and 56-0 against East Coast.
Teams the Valley struggled against in 1987 were destroyed in 1988.
Cooper put part of that down to a significant turn around in coaching techniques which were starting to be deployed throughout provincial New Zealand.
“I was involved in New Zealand coaching [programmes] for the under 17s and under 19s. I met [fitness trainer] Jim Blair for Auckland who did this training session using grids.”
It was a method used to improve ball skills and communication between players.
“This was just incredible, four balls, four corners, people running across each other and balls going everywhere.
“That was much better than running around the field 16 times one way, then turning around and running the other way.”
Cooper said it was just one technique aimed at improving the professionalism and results of teams.
“We also decided that we would start training at a certain time and finish at a certain time.
“If you weren’t there, we started with out you. If there was one person, we started. People really bought into it.”
The 1988 team captain Irvine “Butch” Campbell was also at the reunion.
He still holds the union’s record for most tries, 42, from his time in the Valley jersey from 1981-1994.
Campbell also held the record for most tries in one season, scoring 14 in the championship-winning 1988 year and most tries in a match, 4, against North Otago in 1990.
Others to speak included rugby writer Phil Gifford and Thames Valley Rugby Union’s president and historian, Kelly Plummer.
The 1988 players featured as the special guests during the Heartland match in the afternoon, with Thames defeating Horowhenua-Kapiti, 29-27.