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About Tasman Rugby Union

The Tasman Rugby Union was formed in December 2005 to allow the region to field a team in the premier 2006 national provincial competition (the NPC). In 2013 Tasman won the ITM (now Mitre 10) Championship Cup.

The “Mako”, as the Union’s team is known, was an amalgamation of the Nelson Bays and Marlborough Rugby Unions, thereby becoming New Zealand’s newest provincial union.

The Nelson Bays Rugby Sub-Union, founded in 1968 and whose representative team is known as “The Griffins”, is in itself an amalgamation of the Nelson and Golden Bays Rugby Unions founded in 1885 (becoming the nation’s sixth provincial union) and 1920 respectively.

The Marlborough Rugby Sub-Union, founded in 1888 and known as the “Red Devils”, has a proud rugby heritage including holding the storied Ranfurly Shield for six defenses in 1973.

Nelson is The Home of Rugby in New Zealand, being where the first ever competitive rugby match took place in May 1870 at The Botanics between a Nelson College side and Nelson Football Club.

As the newest provincial union, and one of the least resourced, we are determined to prove ourselves as worthy of our place in the national provincial championship. We are a Union moving forward and, now embarking on our second decade, aspire to be a Top 4 national provincial Union, by any criteria.

[For a review of the Union's first nine years, scroll down below]

  • Staff Contacts - Nelson based

    Tony Lewis 

    Commercial & Finance
    Peter van den Bogaardt - Finance Manager
    Les Edwards - Commercial & Marketing Manager
    Martyn Vercoe - Sponsorship Manager - Marlborough 

    Helen Dwyer - Office Administrator

    Community Rugby
    Kahu Marfell - Community Rugby Manager
    Mark Cochrane - Rugby Development Officer - Nelson
    Richard Harris - Rugby Development Officer - Marlborough
    George Vance - Women's Rugby Development Officer
  • Chris Goodman - Crusaders Academy Manager
    Michael Lash - Referee Education Officer
    Nevin Price - Analyst

    Rugby Operations
    Steve Mitchell - Competitions & Operations Manager
    Jo MacLean - Competitions & Operations Administrator 

    Professional Rugby
    Leon MacDonald - Coach
    Shane Christie - Assistant Coach
    Andrew Goodman - Assistant Coach
    Martyn Vercoe - Team Manager 
    Jimmy Holden - Head S&C Trainer
  • Kurt Harrington - Physiotherapist
  • Susanne Ashton - Professional Development Manager

    Staff Contacts - Blenheim based
    Martyn Vercoe - Commercial & Marketing - Marlborough
    Matt MacDougall - Rugby Development Officer
    Wendy Lindstrom - Manager & Age Grade Co-ordinator  

    Board Members

    Ken Beams (Chair) - Independent
    Scott Ford - Independent
    Scott Gibbons - Independent
  • Tony Healey - Nelson Bays
    George Miller - Marlborough
    Tony Woodall - Nelson Bays
    Wayne Young - Marlborough

    Max Spence (2013) - Founding TRU Chairman 2006 ~ 2008, visionary behind the Tasman Makos introduction to the NPC.
    Kieran Keane (2015) - Marlborough rugby stalwart, Tasman Makos co-coach (2009), head coach (2010 ~ 2015).
    Shane Drummond (2018) - Founding Board member, Former President, major contributor at all levels.


The Tasman Rugby Union had to fight ruin, relegation and dissolution to get to where it is today.

Patrick Dawkins explores the history of a young rugby union which has fought all the way and has the scars to prove it.

When the Tasman Makos ran on to Lansdowne Park in Blenheim on July, 30, 2006 it heralded a new beginning for rugby in the top of the South Island.

The stadium was revamped, the crowd was big and it seemed no expense had been spared. Unfortunately that was the problem.

The concept and motivation behind New Zealand's newest rugby union was simple enough. An amalgamation of two provincial unions - Nelson Bays and Marlborough. Both with more than 100 years of history each, and who had battled it out in the lower divisions of the National Provincial Championship [NPC] with an on-field rivalry like only neighbours can.

Together they would form the Tasman Rugby Union (TRU) and compete in the first division, bringing the best of provincial rugby to the people of Marlborough and Nelson and offering Tasman players a pathway to the top, while remaining based at home.

But putting that plan into practice proved anything but simple, and what started as a big party quickly turned into an awful hangover.

A Marlborough Rugby Union (MRU) board member at the time, Peter Heagney still remembers that first game at Lansdowne Park. "It might have all looked good, but I'd hate to say how many thousands of dollars worth of fireworks were blowing off," he says. That pre-match opening display was the most in-your-face element of an organisation that was spending well beyond its means.

There was also a bloated player roster, star signings, an abundance of staff and - because they represented two sub-unions - a long list of Tasman, Nelson and Marlborough representative teams that also needed funding.

These all hurt the balance sheet, but it was the upgrades to Lansdowne Park, imposed on the TRU by the New Zealand Rugby Union (NZRU), which crippled the fledging union.

"When I started the role I was under the impression that the funding was in place to do that, but quickly found out that it wasn't quite as advanced as we thought," says first TRU chief executive Lee Germon.

He thought the required upgrades were "ridiculous" at the time, but "the union had signed up to deliver it and then had to".

In January 2007, the TRU had no option but to raise their mortgage over Lansdowne Park - an asset the MRU brought to their marriage with Nelson Bays - by $600,000 because redevelopments came in $440,000 over budget.

The union suffered a $553,388 loss in its first year of operation. The hangover was kicking in.

The MRU saw themselves as carrying the burden of Tasman's mismanagement and their relationship soured. Over the hill, the TRU and Nelson City Council (NCC) were at loggerheads over funding proposed upgrades to the city's Trafalgar Park.

On the field the Makos finished their inaugural season winning three of 10 matches and in 2007 won just two. They were disappointing records, but there were signs of on-field competitiveness - if the union could just stay afloat.

Incoming chief executive Peter Barr was given that job in March 2008 after Germon left to work for Canterbury Cricket, and immediately began cutting costs. He made the hard calls, including a self-imposed salary cap, a reduction in contracted players from 55 to 28 and lowered funding for the representative programmes.

Looming over all these decisions was the issue of the stadium-sized weight around the TRU's neck, which the union's bankers brought to his attention just two weeks into the job.

"I was given a very clear indication by the BNZ that unless I sold Lansdowne Park they would sell it for us, because we had reneged on some of our repayments," Barr says.

By June 2008, Lansdowne Park had been bought by the Marlborough District Council to ensure it remained a recreational area and rugby ground for the region.

The loss of the prized asset hurt many rugby supporters in Marlborough and the MRU wanted out.

Tasman's future grew even murkier in August that year when the NZRU announced its division one competition would be reduced from 14 teams to 12 the following season. Tasman was now under attack from outside and within.

It was an incredibly tense time, Barr says.

"We lived off the smell of an oily rag. It was bloody hard on the staff."

In the middle of it all the Tasman Makos challenged for the biggest prize in New Zealand rugby, the Ranfurly Shield, suffering a narrow 26-20 loss in Wellington. In the same city, just two days before the match, the TRU trio of Barr, chairman Max Spence and coach Todd Blackadder made a last ditch plea to the NZRU to save their union.

"I do remember that day. We presented to the full board. Toddy [Blackadder] pulled on the heart strings of the NZRU board as only he could do.

"He was outstanding. I sort of touched on the financial side of things and Max the vision and where we were wanting to take the union and how it all came about in the first place," Barr says.

The NZRU, led by Steve Tew, took notice and the Makos were given a stay of execution - with the proviso they sort out their infighting and their finances.

That was no easy feat.

Heagney was chairman of the MRU by this stage.

"We could have quite easily just let the Tasman Union go bankrupt. I could have made that decision because people over here said to me, ‘We will do whatever you want'." he says.

In an attempt to ease concerns, Spence resigned as chairman and was soon followed by the full TRU board, including Heagney, who had been a member since 2007.

The MRU played hardball, making sure the TRU presented them with a balanced budget before pledging their continued support. Even then , Tasman wasn't saved until the 11th hour.

As the minutes ticked down to the NZRU's deadline to prove themselves financially sound, a rescue package arrived from anonymous benefactors. They would later be revealed as a consortium of the Marlborough District Council, Nelson City, the Crusaders and Nelson Pine Industries, a long-time commercial partner of Nelson Bays and Tasman Rugby.

"It was incredibly stressful. I used to go home thinking, ‘Where are we going to get our next dollar from'?" Barr says.

The Makos had survived their third year despite suffering some massive wounds. Their fourth year was just as dangerous.

Tasman was not the only provincial union in financial strife after the NPC was expanded in 2006 and, pressured by the larger provincial unions, the NZRU again decided to reduce the competition, this time to 10 teams.

Tasman looked sure to be culled.

An outcry of public support for Tasman was highlighted by a "Save the Makos" campaign, which came to a crescendo when Steve Tew attended the final Makos' game of the 2009 season in Blenheim. He was presented a petition signed by 14,000 supporters in Nelson and Marlborough keen on keeping their team in the top division.

The Makos lost that match 22-14 to Wellington to finish the season with six wins from 13 outings. The players said their goodbyes, not knowing if they would have a team to return to in 2010.

The outpouring of support from fans in the smaller unions persuaded Tew and the NZRU to maintain the 14-team competition - a decision announced in December 2009.

The TRU has since gone on to celebrate it's ninth anniversary, and is strong and healthy on and off the field, despite - maybe because of - the scrapes with death in its formative years.

They have recorded profits in four of the past five years, under CEOs Barr, Andrew Flexman in 2012 and 13 and now Tony Lewis. Last season the on-field results finally came, winning the second-tier ITM Cup championship title in Nelson.

This year they made is to the premiership final, putting them on the big stage for all the right reasons.

"We have become very fiscally responsible. We know what we can spend and what we can't spend. We run a very tight, lean machine," says current TRU CEO Tony Lewis.

The players are happy, too.

No longer do the Makos rely on luring the big names and instead back a combination of home-grown talent and those interested in joining what veteran lock Alex Ainley calls "a bloody good environment".

There are still those people, mainly in Marlborough, with reservations about the union and its viability, and they will likely go to their graves harbouring those concerns.

A man who has been through it all - all the talk of financial ruin, relegation and dissolution - is 31-year-old fullback Robbie Malneek. He wore the number 15 jersey during that exciting debut match in 2006 and was still wearing it on Saturday night in the final against Taranaki.

He perhaps explains the transformation best.

"Down in Christchurch when we played Canterbury [on October 4 this season], behind the in-goal you had the Nelson Bays under-18s and the Marlborough under-18s on opposite sides of the grandstand, separated, but by the end of the game they were together and cheering us on."

- The Marlborough Express