North Otago rugby will again break new ground when it sends a senior representative team to Canada for a three-match tour in July-August.
Heartland Championship coach Barry Stevens will get a chance to prepare for the 2016 season with games against the Canadian Barbarians (Victoria, August 3), Prairie Wolf Pack Alberta (Calgary, August 6) and British Columbia-Lake Burnaby (Vancouver, August 10).
It is the third time the Old Golds have headed overseas in the modern era _ they toured Japan in 2008, and the Pacific Islands in 2014 _ and the tour was about more than on-field action, union chief executive Colin Jackson told the Oamaru Mail.
“It’s all about building relationships,” Jackson said.
“We’re a small province and we need to build links with places like Canada and England to sustain six rugby clubs here.
“A place like North Otago now needs overseas rugby players. It just won’t work otherwise. We’ll have a dozen guys from overseas this year. Take them out and we’d be really struggling, especially in key positions.”Jackson said Canada had a growing rugby scene and there were good players there who might fancy a season of New Zealand rugby in North Otago.
He pointed to recent imports DJ Sears-Duru, the Valley prop who later went to the World Cup with Canada, and Matt Mullins, who is in the national sevens side.
The link with Canada emerged when Jackson and then North Otago chairman Bill Dean visited US universities in the hope of opening doors for North Otago players to use rugby as a ticket to college.
The Old Golds will take just 24 players on the Canadian tour.
Two years ago, all 24 players who toured Fiji and Tonga appeared in the Heartland Championship, and that proved there was immediate value in touring overseas, Jackson said.
“We want to effectively have our Heartland squad participating in this tour.
“It’s also a catalyst to get players to come to North Otago. The carrot we can offer is a trip like this.”All players must sell raffle tickets to help fund their trip, and they will also give up all match payments ($100 per game) for the entire season.
In conjunction with the union, each player will have to secure sponsorship of $2000.
Family and supporters were welcome to join the tour and should call the union (434-2053), Jackson said.
The North Otago touring party leaves Oamaru on July 30 and returns on August 14, 13 days before the start of the Heartland Championship.