Opinion: Look out, Otago's comeback is real

Otago defender Storm Purvis reaches for a pass during the national provincial netball final against Waikato in Mt Maunganui in October. Photo by Bay of Plenty Times.
Otago defender Storm Purvis reaches for a pass during the national provincial netball final against Waikato in Mt Maunganui in October. Photo by Bay of Plenty Times.
John Brimble might be slightly biased but he genuinely believes Otago is on the cusp of a golden sporting era. As 2013 begins, the Sport Otago chief executive shares his vision.

Otago has one of the highest participation rates in sport and recreation within New Zealand. We are heartland New Zealand and produce a steady stream of talented athletes across a broad spectrum of sport and recreation.

However, we cannot produce this talent without having a broad base and high level of participation at grass-roots level.

The good news is that the number of children and youth involved in sport and recreation across the region is increasing, with Otago one of the few areas nationwide to show an increase. In particular, our participation rates at secondary school level rose by 3% in the past year.

As a result of a range of initiatives delivered through regional sports organisations linking to schools, and through Sport Otago and the Kiwisport scheme, participation at primary school level has lifted remarkably.

Otago captain Derek de Boorder plays a cut shot during the twenty/20 game against Canterbury at the University Oval on Tuesday. Photo by Peter McIntosh.
Otago captain Derek de Boorder plays a cut shot during the twenty/20 game against Canterbury at the University Oval on Tuesday. Photo by Peter McIntosh.
We are witnessing a boom in most sports and increasing participation in a whole range of fringe and new sports. Futsal and miniball are struggling to cope with the numbers. This increase at grass-roots augurs well for the future of Otago sport.

For the past four to five years, and in the case of some sports even longer, Otago has not reached its potential.

Yes, we have had individual success with the world-class performances of Alison Shanks, Hamish Bond, Suzie Bates, Adam Hall and the Wells brothers, to name a few. However, at a team level, Otago has struggled. Well, that is no longer the case. Look out, New Zealand, Otago is coming.

It's apparent we are on the verge of another golden period for Otago sport. After years of attempting to compete in the new semi-professional and professional era, by bringing imports into bolster our teams, this has now given way to a focus on providing opportunities for homegrown talent.

In fact, it's a trend across most of our team sports. For a number of codes, it's been a period of gradual development and evolution, with local players building their skills, knowledge, experience and mental attitude for a couple of years, before producing the results.

It started with the Otago Nuggets basketball franchise, blooding and sticking with local club players, bolstered by a couple of good international imports.

The real catalyst has been Mark Dickel coming home to provide on and off court leadership. Last season, after a couple of years at rock bottom, the Nuggets produced a run of winning games that ignited the National Basketball League, and had the biggest crowds of the league. Hayden Allen is returning from Auckland and there is confidence the team will be even better in 2013.

Against all predictions, the Otago netball team won the national provincial competition last year, for the first time since 1998. The core of the team was from the successful under-21 team of previous years, and the current under-21 team also won the national championship. The investment in local youth has paid dividends.

The Southern men's hockey team has continued the trend, with a close-run second in the National Hockey League. Local players rose to the occasion and forced themselves into international representative consideration.

Otago cricket has, for some time, invested in local talent. Last year, the Volts introduced a number of young emerging players - the ''new guard'' - into the squad. The recruitment of imports Ryan ten Doeschate and (very briefly) Brett Lee has been exciting, of course. But so have the performances of Jacob Duffy and Hamish Rutherford.

The future looks bright in terms of the pool of talent coming out of Otago in the next few years.

We had the fantastic effort of Otago Boys' High School reaching the final of the New Zealand First XV rugby competition.

We have emerging Otago swimmers who have performed extremely well over the year at national level. With impending changes to the coaching structure, Otago swimming should go from strength to strength over the next few years.

Expect more success, too, in surf life-saving, with the world champion Laughton sisters in the IRB discipline, and triathlon, with a group of emerging athletes just starting to compete at world level and building on the success of Nicky Samuels and Tony Dodds.

Adversity and hardship leads to innovation; it also leads to looking within at our own local resources.

The Otago Rugby Football Union is a case in point. Almost down and out, on the brink of ceasing to exist, one key aspect of its revitalisation has been the investment in born-and-bred Otago players. It reinforces that we have always had the talent, but it hasn't always been provided with opportunities beyond age grade. Hence, many a promising player has been lost from Otago to go north, and usually prosper.

Selecting local players based on form and knowledge of potential led to an appreciable lift in the standard of club rugby, as those seeking higher honours sought to impress the selectors.

As a consequence of this local focus, we have seen the emergence of Liam Coltman, Hayden Parker, Tony Ensor and Paul Grant - the latter three all South Otago boys.

The pride in the province, pride in the jersey, playing for each other and not giving in has never been more evident. It has given a lift to the spirits of the population; we get a good feeling from the reflected association with teams that are performing well.

Isn't it great to feel positive and proud to be Otago? And, talking about ''spirit'', the Otago women's rugby team has shown plenty of that. Cost-cutting measures flowing from the difficulties faced by the ORFU led to the women's team being unfunded, resulting in a public campaign and support from Otago All Black Adam Thomson to raise the funds necessary to keep the Spirit in the national women's competition.

If anything, the situation the Otago women faced resulted in a gain in support, increased profile and a following they haven't had for a while. It pulled the players together and hardened their resolve to perform and succeed. It attracted past Black Ferns to return from overseas and contribute and help the development of younger players. They truly showed the Otago spirit.

In cycling, we have a group of young athletes who are breaking into the elite ranks and who inevitably will represent New Zealand at the highest level. The brother-and-sister pair of James and Sophie Williamson, from Alexandra, along with Patrick Jones, Tom Vessey, Liam Aitcheson, Brad Evans and Katie Schofield, who came so close to qualifying for the London Olympics, represent the future of cycling, as does Matthew Scoles in downhill mountain biking. These are followed by a group of emerging talent in the form of Alysha Keith, Reta Trotman, Tom Bradshaw, Conor Macfarlane, Shannon and Samantha Hope, just to name a few.

And don't forget other activities synonymous with Otago. Central Otago is rapidly becoming the focus and base for high-performance adaptive skiing, alpine ski racing, freeskiing, snowboarding and cross-country disciplines.

We have the Wells brothers competing internationally and a large contingent of world-ranked athletes in Adam Barwood, Taylor Rapley, Willis Feasey, Piera Hudson, Andrew Pohl, Sam Lee, Lyndon Sheehan, Hamish McDougall, Hamish Bagley, Janina Kuzma, Rebecca Sinclair, Shelly Gotlieb and Carl Murphy, with many more pushing them hard.

One element that all these well-performing Otago teams and squads have in common is that they have homegrowncoaches. These coaches are passionate about Otago and have instilled in their players a ferocious commitment, hard-nosed defence, rapid attack and counterattack, and the mental and physical toughness of never giving in.

We have a new generation of emerging coaches and quality experienced coaches who will lead Otago back to the top. Ryan Martin (Otago Boys'), Debbie Tasi-Cordtz (netball), Tony Brown and Phil Young (rugby), Lauren Piebenga (under-21 netball), Janine Southby (Steel), Simon Body (tennis), Andrew Campbell and Jarrod Adams (athletics) and Tom Wilmott (snowsports) are all doing fine work.

Too often, we overlook the time, the commitment, and the sacrifices that our coaches make in dedicating their energy in developing our local athletes. Through their coaching, the environment they create and the faith they are putting into our homegrown talent, our youth are responding by their collective performance in the sporting arena.

Otago, a province with a proud sporting history, basks in this reflected positive energy. We are all proud to be Otago.