Hard work pays off ... North Otago celebrates winning the 2019 Meads Cup in front of a home crowd in October last year. PHOTO: FILE

The awards keep on coming for North Otago’s Heartland rugby team.

The 2019 Meads Cup champion backed up its success at the Waitaki Sports Awards by winning team of the year in the Otago Sports Awards this week.

It is the first time the North Otago Heartland team has won the award and it finished ahead of worthy finalists in the Otago Spirit rugby team, which won the Championship section of the Farah Palmer Cup women’s competition, and the King’s High School hockey team, which won the national Rankin Cup.

North Otago coach Jason Forrest said it was very humbling to be named team of the year and nice to have something to celebrate during these difficult times.

“It was a huge surprise, pretty stoked about it really. A very surreal year for us and a great year,” he said.

Forrest guided North Otago back to the pinnacle of Heartland rugby last year, the Old Golds winning the Meads Cup with a convincing 33-19 victory over Wanganui.

The key to the team’s success was a change in culture, something Forrest and the rest of the coaching and management team drove early in the season.

A two-day camp in Otematata at the start of the season set the standard, he said.

Forrest told strength and conditioning coach Glen Sturgess to push the players to their limits.

“It was brutal, but the guys just never stopped and really showed what they were made of,” he said.

“That’s when I knew the culture was changing.”

The coaching team implemented simple game plans and structures and the players just got on with the job in front of them every week.

Even the loan players bought into what the coaches and team leaders were trying to instill.

“We wanted the loan players to be locals and . . . they were just an amazing group and they fitted in,” he said.

In the end, that camaraderie was the key to the side’s success, he said.

Without an awards ceremony, Forrest made an online acceptance speech.

He was also intending, when it was allowed, to have a get together and celebrate the achievement. It was also important to acknowledge sponsors, supporters and friends, he said.

Without the disruption of Covid-19, a wider North Otago training group would have been named by now and preparations would have started for a Ranfurly Shield challenge against Canterbury.

The Heartland Championship will not be played this year, but it is hoped North Otago will still get to challenge Canterbury for the shield before the Mitre 10 Cup kicks off on September 11.

“As far as I know, it’s still on. The New Zealand Rugby Union are very positive that it should still be on,” North Otago Rugby chief executive Colin Jackson said.

“We would be hopeful that Canterbury would use [North Otago] as a pre-season game either in late August or early September.”

Like all businesses in New Zealand, North Otago Rugby was “battling hard to stay afloat” in the wake of Covid-19, Jackson said.

He is hoping club rugby in North Otago can start as soon as June 20, but that relied on the Government lifting its ban on gatherings of more than 10 people on Monday.

  • Additional reporting Steve Hepburn

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