A mate sent me a series of excited texts late on Saturday afternoon.

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It was my week to do the bets for our syndicate and I’d taken Taranaki by 1-12 in their Ranfurly Shield clash with Canterbury. Just so it doesn’t look like I’m bragging, I took a punt on five games last weekend but Taranaki was the only team to get up.

Anyway, the result of the Shield game formed only part of my friend’s excitement.

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The small town we live in is part of a Heartland union. We don’t produce a lot of talent, but take a lot of pride in the lads that do make their way onto a bigger stage.

Turns out the parents of Canterbury outside back Andrew Knewstubb live on the same street as my friend, while Taranaki reserve halfback Warwick Lahmert was on old club teammate.

I take my car to the garage Lahmert’s brother works at and I still get nervous every time Dane Coles’ mum serves me at the pharmacy.

Nothing brings New Zealanders together en masse quite like the All Blacks.

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The Olympics and Commonwealth Games can be unifying forces too, along with the America’s Cup, but no sports team has quite the same hold over us as the famous men in black.

Super Rugby Aotearoa was surprisingly popular this year. Circumstances played a part in that, given how starved we were of live sport, but the chance to watch our best and brightest talents go head-to-head was one that huge numbers of people took up.

The All Blacks have been and (largely) gone from the Mitre 10 Cup, but that doesn’t diminish the connection between New Zealanders and that competition.

Whether that’s through someone’s mum – who works in your local pharmacy – or a player that you went to school with or a coach who’s a mate of your dad’s, the Mitre 10 Cup is the way in which we best relate to professional rugby players.

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Another mate of mine retweeted a photo of the Francis Douglas Memorial College contingent – including Beauden, Scott and Jordie Barrett – who’d been part of Saturday’s 23-22 win over Canterbury. He lives in Sydney these days but, wherever he is in the world, the pride at being a Francis Douglas old boy remains.

These are the ties that bind us to provincial rugby no matter who we are.

It’s nice that Beauden and Jordie Barrett followed father Kevin in becoming Hurricanes, but that doesn’t compare to winning the Ranfurly Shield in Taranaki colours.

Kevin Barrett was a Hurricane and that’s no mean feat, but he’s a Taranaki legend made famous – in large part – by being a member of the 1996 side that snatched the Shield off Auckland.

Beauden Barrett referenced that match on Saturday night and how he’d dreamed of playing for Taranaki and winning the Ranfurly Shield himself one day.

Just like hooker Bradley Slater who talked of having the same childhood dream, when the Taranaki team got back to New Plymouth on Sunday. Son of Taranaki great Andy Slater, Bradley had grown up on those same tales of Eden Park ‘96.

The Mitre 10 Cup has lost some stature in recent years, but it still retains its context.

Ideally, a player like Beauden Barrett wouldn’t go five years between provincial appearances, but what matters is that it really meant something when he returned. It remains to be seen if he’ll get to defend the Shield, or even play for Taranaki again, but it doesn’t diminish his status as a Taranaki man or that of his family.

Scott Barrett has never played for Taranaki, while Jordie has only this season’s two appearances under his belt, but they’re still immediately synonymous with the union, still favourite sons in every sense, still connected to that province and the proud playing records of men such as their father.

All through Taranaki right now you know there are people chuffed to have known or played against or even just met someone in the Barrett family. Same as there will be those who know Bradley and Andy Slater, Teihorangi Walden or Ricky Riccitelli and will be walking taller or telling tales or buying tickets to see the team defend the Shield against Otago on Sunday.

Mitre 10 Cup rugby doesn’t make the big bucks or attract the best audiences. It might not feature our finest players that often, but it always brings people and communities together and makes them feel as if they have some ownership of their local team.

Or, if you’re in a smaller union like me, a sense of pride that players are out there trying to put your town on the map.

There are those who would do away with this kind of grassroots rugby, who’d stage test and franchise footy only and forgo the burden of funding the community game.

Provincial rugby isn’t cheap and the returns aren’t great, but it remains our best connection between the past and the present and the professional and the promising.

It isn’t perfect. Not as it stands, anyway, with the inclusion of All Blacks a novelty rather than an expectation.

But it remains hugely relevant to a great many New Zealanders and Taranaki’s recent triumph has been a timely reminder of that.

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