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South suits Tasman lads

PHILLIP ROLLO

Makos masquerading as southern men, from left, Shane Christie, Joe Wheeler, Alex Ainley and Marty Banks.

 
 

Call it the Tasman of the south. The Highlanders Super Rugby franchise has a strong connection with the Makos team and Phillip Rollo got to meet three players who are helping turn the competition underdogs into heavyweights.

Shane Christie is proud to see so many of his Tasman boys secure Super Rugby contracts and no-one would have more pleased than him when Alex Ainley, Marty Banks and Ross Geldenhuys joined him and Joe Wheeler at the Highlanders.

"It's awesome and it's real rewarding to see the success the boys have had with Tasman and then to get opportunities playing Super Rugby," he says.

"All of the Tasman boys are actually good mates so seeing them running around in different teams is a peculiar feeling but it's satisfying to see the boys in Tasman have gone on to achieve bigger and better things. In the back of your mind you know where you started. Even if they're in different teams you play for the same province.

"Especially with Alex [Ainley], what an achievement that is at 33. He's been playing really well and performing for our development team and I can't wait until he gets a crack for us. It's going to be exciting to see."

Christie is yet to play for the Highlanders this season due to hamstring issues.

He was set to make his comeback in last week's match against the Waratahs but tore his hamstring again in the warmup and is now likely to be out for another five weeks.

"I was so close to getting a crack again but had it taken away five minutes before the game. But that's rugby and I'll just carry on trying to come back and by the time I'm right there will still be a lot of rugby to be played."

The team has picked up some big scalps already this season - most notably the Chiefs and the Waratahs - but no matter how many games they win the Highlanders are continually written off. Christie says it's disappointing that the rest of the country doesn't take them seriously, but that just fuels their motivation.

"The whole country treats you as the underdogs, doesn't expect you to do much or achieve anything. We know how hard we're training and that's the main thing.

"We know how successful we can be, we just need to prove it and I think we'll get a good following when we do. The community is right behind us down here so we'll get the rest of the country on board.

"Tasman used to be underdogs too, only two years ago. We turned our franchise around and I guess we're doing the same down here with the Highlanders."

To keep himself busy, Christie is currently renovating a house and before he got injured he had just picked up surfing. There's a group within the Highlanders who call themselves the FNC, the Friday Night Crew.

"We're just amateurs but it's good fun."

Joe Wheeler is doing his best to recruit more Highlanders to the Tasman Makos. Prop Kane Hames has signed for the ITM Cup season but Tom Franklin couldn't be convinced.

"We just about managed to get him over the line but half of Dunedin came to the rescue," he jokes, just as Ben Smith walks into the room.

Smith walks over to listen in. "We just said we've recruited you to Tassie."He raises his voice, trying his best to get his co-captain's attention. "We've also been in talks with Ben Smith . . ."

"Yeah okay," Smith jokes back, doing a 'fins up' as he leaves again.

There is a glaring issue of course - Smith will be playing for the All Blacks at the same time. But Wheeler knows the solution to that problem. "He'll just have to stop being so good."

Wheeler is one of the larrikins at the Highlanders but that just highlights how comfortable and at home he feels in his third season in Dunedin. He's just penned a one-year extension on his contract, keeping him at the team until 2016, and he has become a regular fixture in the starting lineup.

Without saying the exact words "All Blacks", Wheeler's decision to remain in New Zealand and not head offshore for another 12 months comes down to his dream to play for his country.

"I suppose it's coming to the stage of my career where I start to think about potential offshore moves but I didn't want that seed of doubt when I finished up with that 'what if'.

"I want another crack at the ultimate and I'm happy to be staying for another year and contribute, and who knows after that?"

Wheeler sees a lot of parallels between the Tasman Makos and the Highlanders, and it's not just because six will play for both teams this year. No matter how well they play, they always seem to be given the underdog tag.

"I think a real workman-like ethos towards rugby, just going about doing your job and playing with your mates, it's what footy is all about and those values don't go astray here even though it's a fully professional environment," he says. "And it's the same up home too."

When he's not playing rugby, Wheeler spends his time in Dunedin playing golf and cruising around the water on his new paddle board. He's been down there long enough that he's not too worried about the cold.

Marty Banks is thriving down at the Highlanders.

He had a standout season for the Tasman Makos in 2014 and earned himself a Hurricanes contract on the back of it. But his options were limited in the capital and, after playing another starring role for the Makos, the sharpshooter found himself wanted down south.

He kicked the Highlanders to victory over the Chiefs just a couple of weeks ago and is enjoying playing behind incumbent 10 Lima Sopoaga and learning from Otago legend Tony Brown, who is the team's assistant coach.

"Getting down here and getting some minutes and not starting is probably the best thing. I'm sitting behind Lima and just learning my lessons as I go.

"I'm not being thrown in the deep end too early. I'm just trying to develop and I'm enjoying it, definitely."

Banks, who has developed into Mr Reliable on the field, is happy to come off the bench and kick goals. But he was quick to play down his winning role in that game against the much-fancied Chiefs.

"If it had been Lima he would've knocked it over as well so I was just lucky enough to be on there to get the plaudits. It's been awesome to come down here and contribute."

He believes the culture is similar at the Highlanders and the Tasman Makos, and agreeing with Wheeler's comments about players wanting to head to Nelson and Blenheim, he joked that "there might be 10 Highlanders at the Makos next season".

"Everyone knows about the culture we've got up there, probably led by Joey from the earlier days. But it's really strong and it's similar to what we've got down here."

While the culture might have a familiar feel to it, the weather certainly doesn't and Banks is still getting his head around the prospect of surviving a Dunedin winter.

"I'm just lucky Joey has a good heat pump.

"But we're just lucky enough we've got a stadium that doesn't get affected. You battle out here on the training ground but you know on a Friday or Saturday that you've got a nice covered shelter to play under and it's bloody awesome.

"I'll just have to invest in a few more jerseys for next year." Banks said he "dabbles" in a bit of golf when he's not playing rugby, but Wheeler said that wasn't true, he spends most of his time on his phone.

"I don't mind being on my phone and having a chat. Just relaxing," he admits.

- The Nelson Mail