As much as I admire the skill levels on show at Super Rugby and international levels, it is not where my rugby heart beats the loudest.
The long-standing community rivalries, unbridled passion and loyalty on show at club grounds across the Bay of Plenty is what I look forward to the most.
It is at the grassroots level of the game that communities get together every Saturday or Sunday, no matter how tough the winter chills and rain make standing on the sidelines.
The family ties going back generations are what make the difference at every club, and nowhere is this more evident than at the Te Puna club that celebrates its centenary in 2019.
There has been a Borrell and a Bidois on pretty much every team sheet ever since the club began 100 years ago, with the lineage going back to when two young friends, Emile Borell and Louis Bidois, arrived in Te Puna in the 1850s from Normandy in France.
The link with Matakana Island is another fascinating part of Te Puna’s history. They have shared playing resources in all age divisions for nearly a century.
Support for club rugby was deemed to be at a low ebb a decade back, and remains so in many parts of New Zealand. But bucking that trend to a greater level than most other regions is the support shown for the Farmlands Baywide competitions.
Across the vast expanse of the territory that makes up the Bay of Plenty union are 37 clubs competing in various Western, Central and Eastern Bay of Plenty Sub-Union competitions, as well as the Baywide Premier, Premier Development, Division 1 and 2 and Women’s competitions.
Most divisions are underway this weekend, with the Baywide Women kicking off on April 14.
Thanks to the vagaries of the draw, the opening clash of the Premier and Development grades is a repeat of last year’s grand finals. Champions Te Puke Sports travel to Te Puna’s magnificent Maramatanga Park for an early look at their respective form and fitness levels.
Last year Te Puna won the Premier and Development first round titles ahead of Te Puke, only to be run over by the Te Puke “Pirates” on the final day of the season.
If you are not sure if it matters to supporters, try getting a park anywhere near Maramatanga Park on Saturday afternoon.
The large and vocal fan base of both clubs will be looking to get some early season bragging rights over their rivals. Some of the best banter at any club ground comes from the “season ticket holders” up on the top of the vast bank at Maramatanga Park.
But whatever the result, both sets of supporters will enjoy the traditional after-match experience in the clubrooms, where no doubt they will unite in their assessment of how the ref went. All in good fun, of course.
For the 10 Premier teams competing in the opening round, it is essentially all about making the top eight to contest the Baywide Premiership, with the bottom two shifting back to Division 1.
Rangiuru return to the Premier level for the first time in many years, with the Te Puke-based club coached by favourite son Tanerau Latimer.
The former All Black, All Black Sevens, Chiefs and Bay of Plenty star has finally hung up his boots. Good luck to Lats in his new role.
Rangiuru open their campaign at Greerton Marist, with Arataki hosting Tauranga Sports, Rangataua away to Rotoiti and Mount Maunganui making one of the longest trips in New Zealand club rugby to Opotiki.