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Alignment – The Rise of Eden Rugby

  • By Adam Julian / Photos Eden Rugby and Joe Simpson

“We’re like bad pennies, we just keep turning up!” Grant Nicholls laughs when asked to explain what’s unique about the character of the Eden RFC, shock first-time winners of the 2021 Gallaher Shield after 99 years of trying.

Nicholls is one of the ‘old boys,’ a loyal cohort of supporters who have stayed resilient withstanding a past threat of amalgamation with powerhouse Ponsonby and years of disappointing premier results.

Nicholls attended Mount Albert Grammar School from 1963 to 1967. Despite the opportunity to play First XV rugby with Bryan Williams, “already a legend,” he instead played on for Eden.

“We won two championships in what was then the fifth and sixth grade. I played Under-19’s, 20’s, and Premiers. In one senior match I broke my tibia and fibula trying to kick a loose ball on the ground. My opponent went for the ball at the same time and we collected each other. My foot went off like a shotgun and I was in plaster for three months. I came back and helped fundraise for a US tour.

“Eden has provided me with a sense of loyalty, camaraderie and purpose. Friendships run deep here and that doesn’t just go away.”

Flashback to 2011 and Eden was in disarray. Seven players were showing up for Premier practice. Eden was known for taking your head off on the field, and if not it would probably be taken off in the carpark if you stayed too late that night.

Mark Bateman has enjoyed a 62-year association with Eden. Born in Palmerston North, “because someone has to be,” his parents shifted to Auckland in 1959 (when Mark was 10) to run a bookshop in nearby Sandringham. Initially coached by his dad in the juniors, Mark swiftly rose through the playing ranks and by 30 was appointed club chairman.

“I’d moved on with business and family,” Mark concedes. “but I could see what a bad shape the club was in.

“I approached two or three people on the executive and got the numbers together. We had a bit of a cleanout but that was necessary to move forward.”

Mark’s son Dave Bateman was Eden premier halfback for nine seasons. He played professionally in Ireland for Letterkenny where the ‘Originals’ All Black captain Dave Gallaher (whom the Auckland Premier competition is named after) was born nearby and has a stadium named after him.

In 2009, upon the recommendation of Sir Graham Henry, Dave took up coaching and guided Eden to the Under-19 grand finale. The next season he took the Under-21’s to the playoffs. Mark suggested Dave be promoted to senior coach in 2011 but soon discovered departing board members had appointed another senior coach so Dave, after a brief stint as assistant, was out altogether for two years nursing the stigma of nepotism allegations. He came back and coached the Under-21’s in 2014 – a team that made the playoffs once again.

Tom O’Hanlon is patron of Eden – a life member of the club and Auckland Rugby whom he served in various capacities from 1976 to 1993. In 1947 Eden celebrated its 25th anniversary and O’Hanlon was in the senior schoolboys’ team, alongside future All Black Frank McMullen, that won a championship. A premier fullback and ace goal kicker in the 50s he was president in the 70s and on the organising committees of the 50th and 75th Jubilee celebrations. What Tom thinks matters, so in 2015 he asked Dave to coach the premiers – a job Dave didn’t initially want given the magnitude of what was needed to fix the team, so he took an assistant role instead.

Tom O’Hanlon.

“Our first four games in 2015 we lost and nothing had changed from previous seasons so the Head Coach had to go. That’s when I stood up and took the main job on’’ Dave recalled.

“We were an absolute mess. The committee would bring in new coaches every couple of years and they’d bring their own players who added nothing to the club and would get rid of Eden players each time. We needed to succeed in the Eden style, but we had no personality.

“I learned that good culture wins’ rugby. I knew what I was talking about tactically, but I think if you watch a YouTube video on what makes good culture and try to impose it on a group you’re missing the point. Culture is about good people getting on with each other on and off the field. We’ve got at least six nationalities in our team, Tongans, Samoans, Argentines, Maori, Pakeha. I had to get on the same level as my players.”

Remarkably Eden won 12 consecutive matches once Bateman took over and won the Portola Trophy, effectively a battle between eighth and ninth.

“We played Suburbs, who would go on to win the Gallaher Shield in 2016. They were stacked with New Zealand Sevens players, Super Rugby players and Samoan internationals. It was 17-all with five minutes to go and I thought this is where the professionals come through, but our culture came through instead and we won. It’s the best game of rugby I’ve ever seen.”

‘Alignment’ is an arrangement in which two or more things are positioned in a straight line or parallel to each other. Dave admits he’d never heard the noun associated with rugby but grew intrigued after hearing the All Black coaches use it. Alignment became a principal in which Eden would conduct business.

“We have a family dinner, drink a couple of rums, talk about what needs to be done at the club and push forward. Nothing happens if everybody is arguing and undermining each other. That’s not to say debate isn’t allowed, it’s healthy, but we needed to be singing from the same song sheet.”

Meanwhile, Ignacio ‘Iggy’ Costa was restless after a season in Italy in 2015. The gifted halfback and first-five had left Auckland after failing to crack the representative system from Massey. The son of an Argentinian pilot, Iggy attended Rosmini College where he was in the First XV – losing two North Harbour finals in 2010 and 2011.

Ignacio Costa.

“I wanted to come home so I sent some feelers out to clubs. I chatted to Dave on Zoom and he seemed real cool. When my brother Nicolas, playing in Spain, told me he was coming home too I had to change the email to say Eden was getting a new 9 and 10.

 “I arrived two or three games into the 2016 season. We won the Portola Trophy and went close to beating a few of the top sides. In the games I didn’t play I could see how much the boys loved playing for each other.”

Iggy started at fullback for Eden with his brother at halfback. In 2017 the third Costa brother, first-five Roddy, arrived and Eden found their style.

“The Costas added another realm,” Dave Bateman explains. “They do things a bit differently because they’re Argentinian, but they win. We played a real Sevens style. Flankers in the backs, ball to the edge, real exciting to watch.

“I used to get in touch with Graham Henry quite a bit because he did really abstract things. One year we had a problem with our players going to sleep during the games. In the All Blacks to prevent that from happening Henry had this thing called the Red Squad. The Red Squad were six nominated players who basically went out there to absolutely smash someone and change the momentum of the game. It was a complement to be in the Red Squad and could change after each test. We did the same thing but what I found in club rugby it was harder to switch off with a bunch of amateurs.”

Eden would finish fifth in the Gallaher Shield in 2017. In the last game of the round-robin a four-try bonus point was needed to reach the semis. They beat Suburbs but only scored three tries after a player was red-carded in the fifth minute.

Sweet consolation would be achieved in summer when Eden won the National Club Sevens, a title they retained 12 months later, the Costa’s being a key factor.

Nico Costa would depart to Southland with his brothers in 2018 prompting an adjustment to the game plan. A forward orientated strategy built upon an imperious scrum, tackling efficiency, and territorial dominance would see Eden reach the semi-finals for the first time in its history.

Nico Costa.

Alex Fatu was a vital addition to the coaching staff. An astute observer of video with a sound technical grasp of the game, Alex allowed Dave to concentrate exclusively on the backs and attack with the pair collaborating over selection and player management. Former Tongan international Finau Maka also came aboard.

Stuart Ta’avao, brother of All Black Prop Angus, joined Eden as a premier loose forward in 2009. He left the club in 2014 to play league for Ponsonby, returning in 2015 for four further seasons. With a background in social work, boot camp instructing and pastoral care, coaching was a natural progression. He inherited the Development team in 2019. A marked improvement on previous fortunes saw the side narrowly miss the playoffs. The Premiers lost another semi-final.

“Stuart was a lively player and has become a great coach,” Mark Bateman said.

“In many ways he’s got the hardest job at the club because he never knows which players are going to be called up to the premiers each week. He’s been able to build great rapport and depth.”

With Iggy and Nico Costa back at halfback and first-five, the premiers and development were on target for the semis in 2020 until the season was cancelled due to a coronavirus lockdown.

There would be another summer perk however with the inaugural National Under 85kg Club Cup tailor-made for the Costa’s. Ponsonby was swept aside in the Auckland final and University pipped 27-24 in a thrilling national decider after Eden flipped a 14-point deficit.

Alignment. With its gentrified housing around the Kingsland and Sandringham suburbs, Eden enjoys growing numbers and wealth in the junior grades. It takes 50 Premier appearances to achieve a blazer. With a dozen players wearing or earning one during the 2021 season, the prospects of a long awaited title were looking promising.

Eden were good in the regular season, 10 wins in 12 matches was concluded with a 79-16 slaying of Waitakere. Still, they only finished fourth, making the playoffs after Grammar TEC beat College Rifles with a bonus point. So top qualifier Ponsonby awaited in the semis.

“We did come fourth but we weren’t panicking because it was quite an even competition,” Iggy Costa said.

Ponsonby was pumped 20-8 at Western Springs Stadium and Eden had reached its first Gallaher Shield final against Grammar TEC – two-time winners since 2012. Alignment came to the fore earlier in the day as Eden’s Development toppled Grammar TEC 21-8 in their semi.

“Coaching is funny because a lot of teams’ train each week to adapt to another team’s style. We knew what Grammar TEC was going to bring and we were like ‘bring it’ we don’t care what they do, we trust our own systems to get the job done,” Dave Bateman said.

The appropriately named Eden Park was awash with black and yellow hoops on a soggy July 17 Saturday. Eden was two New Zealand Under 20 representatives and Tongan international Sione Tuipulotu down.

Eden started well. A Nicolas Costa penalty and converted try to veteran hooker Blake Hill saw Eden lead 10-5 at halftime.

A huge roar from the crowd went up: news had come through that Eden had conquered Pakuranga 20-8 in the Development final. That team, accompanied by a busload of supporters, arrived for the Gallaher Shield climax. Among them is 20-year student Joseph Simpson, a keen sports photographer from Wellington. He adopted Eden as his club away from home because of respect for Stuart Ta’avao – residential life manager at the Auckland University of Technology where Simpson works and lives.

The Eden Development team.

“It was joyous, complete mayhem actually. We just rocked up and nobody checked what we were carrying. Eden supporters outnumbered TEC supporters 10-1.” Simpson said.

Costa extended the lead with another penalty shortly after the break, but a second Grammar TEC try closed the gap to 13-10.

Dave Bateman was relaxed.

“Finau Maka does this thing he doesn’t even know he’s doing and that is to start giggling when things are going well. He’s played so much top level football he just knows. He burst out laughing in the middle of the final and I thought we’ll be right.”

Eden gradually wore Grammar down. A further two penalties to Nicola Costa sealed victory 19-10.

“A lot has been said about our dominant forward game, but we just play to the conditions with the team we have. We are able to play expansively but finals footy in the wet dictates a tighter game. Grammar TEC is a great team and though we felt we were dominating, one or two things go wrong and suddenly you’re behind,” Iggy Costa said.

Watching in the stands with his daughter in-law and granddaughter and four generations of Eden family, Mark Bateman was reduced to tears. Immediately, he received texts almost straight away from London and numbers not seen for years.

Prop Franck Friconnet was named man of the match. It would take the Premiers more than 20 minutes to wade through the adoring crowds who formed a guard of honour at the clubhouse.

“I’ve never seen the clubhouse so packed and what was doubly nice was how respectful everyone was. Young partners, supporters, people I hadn’t seen for years all enjoying themselves.” Grant Nicholls observed.

Tom O’Hanlon, now 87, is the last voice to address the Premier team before matches. Struggling to hold it together, he concluded formalities on Saturday night.

“I dreamed myself playing out there on number one of making a final. The closest we got was 7th out of 14. I’ve been able to watch my mates make it and win it. Today is properly the pinnacle of my Eden career.”

The club turns 100 on February 22nd next year.

The Eden coaching staff, Paul Bateman (left), David  and Alex Fatu.

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