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Thames Valley not challenging just to make up numbers

Thames Valley will not be lacking motivation or commitment when it challenges Otago for the Ranfurly Shield at the Wanaka Showgrounds on Saturday.

The gas tank might be a bit empty, though.

Not the metaphorical gas tank but the actual gas tank.

The $100 the players receive each week barely covers the cost of getting to training. And some squad members drive for a couple of hours one way, so the petrol bill can get a bit pricey.

But no-one is complaining. Heartland rugby is played for love not money and it is that spirit the Swamp Foxes will take into the Shield challenge.

They have also had extra inspiration arrive from France earlier this week.

Former France captain Raphael Ibanez is joining Thames Valley as an assistant coach for the season. The 46-year-old hooker played 98 tests for France.

Thames Valley coach Matt Bartleet said Ibanez was a keen observer at training on Monday.

”Rather than saying something which might not fit, he is finding out what it is all about before he says something,” Bartleet said.

”He is here to find out how New Zealand rugby works. And already, when we said there was a couple of boys who travel from Auckland and a couple from Tauranga and a few from Whitianga, which is a two-hour drive after working a full day, he was a bit shocked.

”I’d say the average drive is an hour … and they do it for love and not money. There really is no money. They get 100 bucks a week to cover expenses for the Heartland games.

”You try and fill up a car up on 100 bucks.”

Bartleet (45), a former prop, played 15 games for Thames Valley in late 1990s and early 2000s so he knows the sacrifices the players make. He also knows what motivates them. Thames Valley embraced the underdog status last year.

It went into the Heartland semifinals as fourth qualifier but upset Wanganui in a historic win and then beat South Canterbury in the final.

A good portion of that squad is back for another season.

Thames Valley typically tries to hold on to the ball and build pressure through continuity. It has good set pieces and some dangerous backs.

”But Otago is the next level up, aren’t they? Whether we can have the same strengths against them I don’t know. It could come down to self-belief and whether we think we can better the guy in front of us.”

Thames Valley has had more than a dozen challenges and it has always ended in defeat. Its most recent shot at the Log o’ Wood was an 83-13 loss to Waikato three years ago.

Bartleet, who is in his third year as coach, was in the crowd that day and knew from the very first tackle how tough it was going to be for his beloved side.

”It was exciting for the team but, gee, after that first contact you could tell it was going to be a long day at the office.

”But we are not going down to Wanaka to make up numbers or have a party. We want to have a real crack at it.

”But we are under no illusions about how big the job is. I mean, it’s Otago. Hell, they are one of New Zealand’s premier rugby teams.”

The team will fly to Queenstown tomorrow morning and then bus to Wanaka. It will have a light run on Friday afternoon and rest up for the big occasion.

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