New Southland Stags coach Dale MacLeod is no stranger to being the underdog on the rugby field.
As a 17-year-old first five-eighth, MacLeod debuted for North Otago – the same year he made his senior debut for his home club, Kurow.
He faces a similar challenge in Southland, although the early signs are promising after the Stags defeated Hawkes Bay 16-10 on Sunday.
MacLeod played for North Otago in the early 1980s, a time when the union was struggling in the representative competition.
However, it was a great place to cut his teeth, he said.
“Phil Gard and Ian Hurst used to play. I was only a young fellow,” MacLeod said.
“Having a couple of All Blacks playing in the club competition was pretty special.
“Everything with rugby, I learnt it there.”
As a 21-year-old, MacLeod moved to Brisbane to play for Easts Rugby Union Club in the Queensland premier competition, a tough grade that featured many Australian international players.
Even during his playing days, he thought about moving into a coaching role.
“I was always that sort of person,” he said.
“When I was in Kurow as a young lad, I would always coach junior teams.”
Since he moved back to New Zealand, MacLeod has steadily made his way through the coaching ranks in Canterbury, before taking on assistant coaching roles in Northland and Southland.
He started as Southland head coach this season and said he tried to integrate his old country rugby values into his coaching.
“If you have a look around at the guys that go on to be All Blacks, a big percentage of them have come from a rural background,” he said.
“There are definitely benefits of growing up in the country and then going into town.”
MacLeod still has strong ties to North Otago.
His brother Peter lives in Oamaru and his mother Margaret still lives in Kurow.
For the past 26 years he has spent every summer camping with his family at Fishermans Bend, in the Waitaki Valley.
“[Kurow is] a good town, I’m very fond of the area,” MacLeod said.
“It’s a beautiful place, I love my camping and fishing.
“It’s just total relaxation. Coaching in Mitre 10 is pretty full-on – we are four months of seven days a week.
“It’s a very intense period so I really enjoy going home for Christmas.”
And he still has a keen interest in the North Otago Heartland team.
“I’ve still got my blazer at home, not too sure if I would fit it now .. but you always follow teams you played for.
“I always take an interest in what they are doing and they have been special to watch over the years.”