Spotters, zoom meetings, Baabaas – Jason Hamlin’s new NZ Heartland challenge

By Jared Smith

Steelform Whanganui assistant coach Jason Hamlin has more reason than normal to be taking notes during the now-late starting Heartland Championship campaign.

As well as helping head coach Jason Caskey with the game-plans and player management needed to win a seventh Meads Cup, Hamlin will be watching for bolters across all 12 teams who could pull on the NZ Heartland XV jersey in December.

Hamlin has been chosen as the new assistant coach under South Canterbury’s Nigel Walsh for the 2021 NZ Heartland team – the second Whanganui coach to receive the honour after Guy Lennox, who took on the role in 2008 before carrying on as head coach in 2009-10.

Due to the Covid lockdown delays, the Heartland XV squad will be selected then and muster to play a NZ Barbarians team on either December 4th or 5th, about a fortnight after the currently scheduled Meads and Lochore Cup finals on November 13.

“Hopefully that still goes ahead,” Hamlin said.

“I just saw the position [advertised] – no great romantic story.”

Hamlin put in his application and won the job following an online Zoom meeting with the selection panel, which included Walsh and Kurt McQuilkin, the former NZ Heartland coach and current general manager of the King Country Rugby Union.

Whanganui rugby has a good relationship with McQuilkin, who selected many locals in his New Zealand teams while maintaining the legendary Peter Rowe as his captain.

 “He’s got his finger on the pulse of it all,” said Hamlin, who agreed the North/South Island dynamic between him and Walsh should let them cover the bases for finding the best players.

The coaching staff will have online meetings every Monday evening during the competition to compare their notes.

“We’ve got spotters [at games], and nominations have gone out to the teams.”

Hamlin does have experience at this level, as from 2014-16 he coached the NZ Marist team against NZ Heartland in their annual McCrae Cup fixtures – a role Walsh took over in 2017.

He laughed that unlike in the Heartland camp, as Marist coach he would have to wait until two weeks before kickoff to start ringing around and finding out which players were available.

 “That’s exactly the point, with NZ Marist, we were on a shoestring [budget], and now we’re on a shoestring…but there is a lot of organisation involved.

“It’s definitely interesting to see the other side of it.”

Due to 2020 being a Covid-truncated season, there was no NZ Heartland XV, after the 2019 side played a record four games in a year – facing the Manu Samoa test squad at Eden Park in August before they headed to the Rugby World Cup, then in November facing NZ Marist before a two-game tour of Fiji.

For this one-off clash at Taupo’s Owen Delany Park, Hamlin said the Barbarians lineup is likely to be made up of fringe NPC players, youth talent, and a strong base of Auckland players, given the city is the Barbarian RFC home base.

But first on his agenda is regaining the Meads Cup, which won’t be easy as the delayed start has seen the draw re-jigged with the decision to forgo semifinals, as the Top 2 teams at the end of the round robin will make the Meads final while third and fourth play for the Lochore Cup.

“She’s going to put a lot of emphasis on the competition right from the start,” said Hamlin.

“It’s going to make the end of the comp pretty enticing.

“[Those last] three weeks – everyone’s going to starting fighting to take results off the other teams.”

AUCKLAND, NEW ZEALAND – AUGUST 31: Lindsay Horrocks of Heartland XV during the International friendly between Manu Samoa and the New Zealand Heartland XV at Eden Park on August 31, 2019 in Auckland, New Zealand. (Photo by Dave Rowland/Getty Images)