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Farewell my coach, my captain

Above- WHANGANUI, NEW ZEALAND – NOVEMBER 14: Captain Campbell Hart (L) and coach Jason Caskey celebrate victory with the Lochore Cup after the Lochore Cup Heartland Championship match between Whanganui and North Otago at Cooks Garden, on November 14, 2021, in Whanganui, New Zealand. (Photo by William Booth/Getty Images)

By Jared Smith

It was only appropriate that when Steelform Whanganui named their player-of-the-day from Sunday’s Lochore Cup final, that it went to their retiring coach.

In one of his last official acts as Whanganui captain, Campbell Hart presented Jason Caskey with the prize, before he and wife Nicola Caskey were treated to farewell gifts from the WRFU and a stirring haka from a group of the players.

It was Caskey who advised Hart and his team that even when they were warming up in sunburn conditions before kickoff, the weather would soon pack in to create heavy wet-weather football, which would ideally clear again before fulltime.

This was Nostradamus stuff – in the rain, Whanganui played a tight game, living off the boot of proven kicker Ethan Robinson to lead 12-3.

Although North Otago worked back to lead 16-12 midway through the second half, the weather clearing to sunshine let Whanganui put the ball through the hands to get back to their best attack, with two tries securing the trophy.

Caskey retires as the most successful coach in the history of the Bunnings Heartland Championship and it isn’t even close for second place.

Four Meads Cup from six finals appearances, two Lochore Cups, and an overall Heartland record as head coach of 68 wins, one draw, and 19 losses tells the story.

As assistant coach to Milton Haig and then Guy Lennox, he also part of five more Meads Cup finals, winning two with Lennox.

“It’s been a privilege, and been really lucky to work with such a talented group of players over the years, players that just keep coming through,” Caskey said.

“The boys wear their hearts on their sleeves and they play like it, and they give it everything.

“The management group, we’ve had a lot of fun and it’s been part of the success how much we’ve enjoyed the job and enjoy what we do.”

His 8-year-old son Angus ran the ball out for kickoff and as a father of four, Caskey was naturally looking forward to having more weekend time with family.

“A little bit more time to watch everybody and support the kids a bit more. Just relax a bit more and not have to worry about Whanganui stuff.

“But it’s been fantastic, and now it’s time, and looking forward to the next part.”

As his captain for the past three seasons, Hart was naturally pleased to deliver a fitting farewell for the coach.

“Bit gutted that it can’t be a Meads [Cup for him]. Myself as well, personally, but a trophy is a trophy.”

Having played his 46th first class game for Whanganui, Hart also finally claimed a Heartland title after the surprise 2018 Meads Cup semifinal loss was followed by the 2019 final defeat, while Covid-19 prevented a full competition in 2020.

The man respected as “Mr Hart” by Ruapehu College students and Ruapehu Rugby & Sports Club members alike, the 30-year-old skipper will be taking up a new teaching position in Taumarunui in 2022, bringing to a close his representative rugby at this time.

 “It’s an opportunity that I never thought that I’d have. I’d never thought about rep rugby or Heartland rugby,” he said.

“But when we moved here, this opportunity came up and I almost said no to it.

“But Peter Rowe twisted my arm and I’ve enjoyed this level of rugby and I’ve enjoyed the opportunities that it’s given me and it’s been a great ride.”

WHANGANUI, NEW ZEALAND – NOVEMBER 14: Captain Campbell Hart with the Lochore Cup during the Lochore Cup Heartland Championship match between Whanganui and North Otago at Cooks Garden, on November 14, 2021, in Whanganui, New Zealand. (Photo by William Booth/Getty Images)