There’s more than a century’s worth of stories about rugby league in Tauranga, and James “Jock” Nicholson wants those stories told to help fire up what he insists is “the world’s greatest game”.
He was staggered to learn when he arrived in town that while the game had such a rich history here, no-one was talking about it. “Why?” he asks.
So Jock Nicholson player, manager and now coach, has started talking. He’s taken control of the senior Coastline Mariners representative rugby league team, which had been defunct for a few years and is busy plotting a resurgence of the rugby league culture in Tauranga.
“I am a competitive bugger, I like to win,” says the nuggety 46-year-old former second-rower-cum-prop.
“We have the players, we have the interest and there’s a hunger for rugby league.”
Nicholson’s three-year vision began this year at Papamoa’s Gordon Spratt Reserve, as coach of the local Bulldogs league side. “Papamoa had been plodding along at reserve grade level,” he explains. “Stepping up meant we needed two teams, which meant more players, which meant more management which meant more costs.”
Nicholson wrangled all of the above and both reserve and premier teams finished fifth out of eight teams. “My aim was to build a culture and not default any games.” Goal achieved.
“And if the games had been 60 minutes instead of 80, we would have made the semi-finals.” And they were never beaten badly – just by 10 to 15 points. “Sometimes as few as six points,” he says. “That was pleasing.”
Nicholson is a man with league pedigree. His mother coached rugby league, and his dad did too. And their little James, who now answers to Jock, was running around rugby league fields in the Far North by the time he was three.
He played for Ellerslie, Richmond and Auckland, won a Fox Memorial with Glenora Bears and represented New Zealand Maori. “My dream was to be a professional rugby league player. Unfortunately, I never got to play NRL.”
But he did play half-a-dozen times for New Zealand Maori. “I was very, very proud.” Then he spent two years playing for Pia, 20 minutes out of Perpignan in the south of France. Now he wants to create those pathways and opportunities for local ‘leaguies’ and give them the chances he had.
“I have committed my time, as has my manager Karl McNeil from the Otumoetai Eels,” he says. “We have committed ourselves for the next three years. We have a plan, not only to get us back into some serious rugby league and back into a better competition, but also to progress the game and compete. There is talent here - a lot of talent.”
That plan is to get the Coastline Mariners or senior representatives back up, running and competitive again. Coastline represents the Eastern and Western Bay clubs of Otumoetai Eels, Papamoa Bulldogs, Putauaki Stags from Kawerau and Taneatua Warriors.
Jock’s scheduled what amounts to two qualifying games early next month – one against Waikato on Saturday, September 1, at Mitchell Park and the other against Manawatu Mustangs on Saturday September 8 at Fitzherbert Park in Palmerston North at 3pm.
Just by playing those two games, the Mariners will be eligible to be admitted to the more prestigious competition - the Northern Region competition involving Waikato Development, Bay of Plenty representing Taupo, Rotorua and Pacific of Tokoroa, the Northern Swords of Northland and the Auckland Sharman development team.
“Tough? Potentially,” admits Jock, “but I know I have a good rapport with all of my players from all of the clubs. Then we just have to show we can compete and build on that.” Fiercely ambitious, he is always looking beyond the next goal.
Because if, just if, they won the Northern Region they would get to play in the First Division with Counties-Manukau, Akoranga (two Auckland sides), Canterbury Bulls and “our brothers from over the hill.” He means Waikato. That would add some gloss to the game in this town.
Jock, “a Scottish Maori or Maori Scot”, is creating another pathway for the many Maori who play league. Any Tom, Dick or Harry can play for Coastline. “I want to revive Maori or Tauranga Moana Maori so they can play in the Maori National Rugby League Tournament.” Jock did and it made him very proud.
While he’s creating pathways, and while he’s being positive and optimistic for his much-loved rugby league, Jock Nicholson’s also completing his MBA –Master of Business Administration with the University of Waikato.
The same drive, energy and direction he brings to local rugby league, he’s bringing to his business career. The title manager or chief executive has a nice ring to it.
And the skills are transferrable. “You don’t have to have the best looking team or the best dressed team,” he says.
“It’s all about being organised, everyone understanding their role and their job. And if people can see that, then you get a lot of buy in.”
Local league is in good hands for the next three years. Then he might just have another dabble overseas, as coaching Super League in the UK appeals.