As seen on https://www.nrl.com
Some of the locals reckon the secret sits in the ironsand deposits which dust this tiny village each time a breath of wind flows in from the Tasman Sea.
Others say it’s simply because there’s little else to do in this isolated part of the world except pick up a ball and play with your friends.
Whatever the secret is, the village of Tahāroa, home to a lone shop and roughly 171 people, punches well above its weight when it comes to producing elite sporting talent.
Last Saturday night, as Tahāroa exports Te Maire Martin and Taine Tuaupiki played key roles in the Warriors’ victory over the Cowboys, the town basked in the temporary glory of being the rugby league capital of the world.
Most of the people who live in Tahāroa (or Tahaaroa in the local dialect) are directly related to Te Maire or Taine, who themselves are whānau (family).
If you somehow don’t share a bloodline, you know them and their families well enough that it feels like it anyway.
It’s no surprise then that the pair’s first game together, which was Taine’s NRL debut and Te Maire’s third game as a Warrior, was the talk of the town, and it quickly becomes clear how immensely proud they are of their boys.
“A place this small having two NRL players in the same team? It doesn’t happen,” Brendon King, the owner of the pub in neighbouring Kawhia tells NRL.com.
The Tuaupiki grandparents, Morris and Maureen, had a busy week fielding congratulatory calls after news broke of the impending debut for their mokopuna (grandchild).
At first it was a particularly strange experience for Morris, an old school no-nonsense type who made his living as a shearer and fitter-welder prior to retiring.
“We’ve been trying not to go out,” he tells NRL.com with a smile.
“They were all ringing us up, but you have got to be humble. But yeah, I was really rapt, I don’t say much, but I was really rapt.”
Even when both players moved to Australia in pursuit of their NRL dream years ago, the Tahāroa connection was vitally important, with Te Maire making a home away from home in Sydney with a shared uncle and aunty on the Tuaupiki side.
“His aunty and uncle, which is my aunty and uncle as well, they took me in when I was at the Tigers in the U-20s and I sort of needed that family support,” Te Maire says.
“I owe his family a lot. It’s good to see him get a game, he’s worked so hard for it.
“It’s a lot more special when you get to play for your home side or for your country, and that’s what it feels like for the Warriors.”
Te Maire and Taine aren’t the only top sporting talents to come from Tahāroa, with New Zealand women’s rugby union representative Tenika Willison and former Māori All Black Jackson Willison also hailing from the village.
Sitting on the extreme limb of New Zealand’s West Coast, Tahāroa boasts the largest deposits of ironsand (titanomagnetite) in New Zealand, which is used in the production of steel.
The town is built on the mining business and prior to ironsand exploration starting in 1968 the town didn’t even have road access.
It employs most of the area’s working people and almost all of the local league team – which is named the Steelers in a nod to the industry.
In Tahāroa, rugby league is the game and has been since 2012 when the club was formed, with no other senior sport in the town.
This year, the Steelers will field two men’s sides and a women’s side, which is brimming with numbers to the point it could almost be split into two teams.
Not all of the players reside in Tahāroa or anywhere near the town for that matter, with many travelling up to an hour from neighbouring districts in order to represent the Steelers.
“It adds a bit more meaning playing here, playing for home,” Steelers prop Jack Maikuku says.
The geographical makeup of the squad, and the fact that they almost all work at the mine, makes organising the season a nightmare.
Players have to race each other to secure time off from work, with some inevitably missing out, and trainings are often not well attended, but still they make it work.
After Te Maire Martin was cleared to play again, following the discovery of a brain bleed which forced him to step away from his NRL career in 2020, he could have gone to any rugby league club he wanted.
But he chose to stay in Tahāroa and play with his people, a decision which sums up how important this town and club are to the local people.
The return of a recent Kiwi international and NRL player to the club scene was obviously big news, and Martin carried a huge target with him each time he took the field, with plenty keen to get one over him.
They couldn’t and didn’t.
Martin was the best player in the local Waikato competition with ball in hand, and in defence he made a habit of humbling those who tried to steamroll him.
“It just brought out the best in him. He knew it was coming, his teammates knew it was coming, and he thrived because of it,” Steelers co-coach Cliff Willison says.
“He made us all better and elevated us when he was back here. From the players to the coaches.”
Maikuku, who played alongside Te Maire at the Steelers, says his one regret from that season was not being able to fully enjoy it.
“When I had the chance to play with him, I was actually too busy trying to catch my breath”, while adding that their star playmaker refused to divert from the high standards which got him to the NRL in the first place.
“He wasn’t shy to let us know when we got stuff wrong. It was good to pick his brain and learn about how it all works at NRL level.
“I looked at him playing for Brisbane when he went back to the NRL and thought ‘he was yelling at me a couple of months ago!’.
“It was mean to see him go back to the NRL from us, that’s a fairytale story that.”
This Sunday, at the Warriors’ first game in Auckland for the year, Tahāroa will be well represented in the crowd with a large section of both Te Maire and Taine’s whānau, and with that most of the town, heading up to cheer on their boys.