League is back on the rise in Waipā.
The Te Awamutu Sports Firehawks will play in the reserve grade of the new season’s Waikato competition under coach Victor Heke, and the club has also established male and female Under-15 and under-9 teams and a senior women’s squad.
The Firehawks’ last senior competitive encounter was in 2019 when they were beaten in the grand final of the reserve grade.
But the club was unable to bounce back during Covid year.
Heke and his wife Tania moved to Te Awamutu from south Auckland 15 months ago – taking the same path their three adult children did to return to Waipā where Heke’s father grew up.
The whanau has embraced the Firehawks and are helping promote a strategic plan to develop the game for men, women and youngsters.
Ultimately, Heke wants to see the Firehawks footing it with the elite of Waikato rugby league – the likes of Taniwharau and Turangawaewae.
The first step was to be welcomed back into the Waikato fold in a reserve grade competition comprising nine teams – including three, Firehawks, Hukanui and Ngaruawahia Lions, who are not represented in the senior competition.
That competition includes the top teams from Turangawaewae, Taniwharau, Hamilton City Tigers, Ngaruawahia Panthers and College Old Boys.
But while league is returning to Te Awamutu, the teams will be playing out of town.
Senior games will be played in Hamilton, Huntly and Ngaruawahia and the juniors will travel each week to play on the expansive home of junior league in Waikato – Hopuhopu.
To complete the set, the Firehawks also have a women’s team which has found competition in the Bay of Plenty, and again it will mean travel each week.
Heke’s primary aim is to rebuild a culture of loyalty in the club – to have players who are proud to wear the jersey of their home-town club and want to contribute to the club.
“Two percent of players here make it to the NRL, and that’s great – I want to concentrate on the other 98 per cent and keep 80 per cent of them in the game,” Heke, who has two decades of coaching at senior level in Auckland to his name, said.
Part of the strategic planning for the club will include developing pathways for young players to progress through what at present is a muddied pathway higher level league.
A whanau day for the new senior men’s team – featuring just seven from the 2019 squad – drew 28 players.
Heke will be able to name just 17 each week in his match day squad – meaning players will miss out.
“It’s not easy – but it is possible if you create a strong culture and loyalty,” he said.
Heke will look to build his team around the Howell brothers – Isaac and Tāwhiritengakau – son Richard and son-in-law Ronnie Adams.
He also has the services of another son, Himeona.
Dorta Adams, Ronnie’s wife and Heke’s daughter, led the Upper Central Stallions to the national women’s title last season and will lead the women’s team.
Heke is pitching for a top four spot for his new charges in their first season.
“We have four games before the bye, and my goal is two wins from that, then three wins from the following five games,” he said.
“A top four place would be a highlight and anything after that a bonus.”
Meanwhile, league is likely to return to Te Awamutu’s Albert Park on Anzac Day Monday – there are plans for a couple of age-group fixtures there, and one of those teams, Hamilton City Tigers, could include Te Awamutu based youngsters.
Heke said the Firehawks will train at Albert Park and enjoyed great support from Te Awamutu Sports.