August 31 1996
1996 RANFURLY SHIELD SAGA
The Ranfurly Shield was held by Auckland at the start and end of the 1996 season, but there were two other unions that had brief tenures during the season. And there was another union that challenged on the 31st August, the 13th September, and again on the 12th October.
NORTH HARBOUR CLOSE – BUT NO CIGAR!
“North Harbour, Taranaki’s first challenger just one week later, were another major contributor to the shield saga of 1996, though not in a way they would remember with much pleasure. They, in fact, created a record by becoming the first union in history to make three challenges in the one year. They also challenged Waikato and Auckland when subsequently those unions had the shield but each match got progressively worse for Harbour. The biggest humiliation was a 69-27 drubbing from Auckland. But the most bitter experience came against Taranaki, which was a match, even allowing for the absence in South Africa of Eric Rush, Glen Osborne, Frank Bunce, Walter Little and Blair Larsen with the All Blacks, Harbour might have expected to win. The attitude of some of their players, particularly captain Richard Turner, seemed to suggest it was a matter of course.
Turner had not been playing much rugby that year as he was recovering from an injury. Thus he was not very match fit for the challenge and it was perhaps debatable whether coach Brad Meurant should have started him. But Turner’s greatest blunder came in the final few minutes before halftime. Harbour were putting severe pressure on the Taranaki line and won a sequence of penalties. But instead of having Warren Burton take a shot at goal Turner opted for attacking scrums and invariably tried himself to barge over from No 8. Once he may have been unlucky not to have been awarded a try but at all other times he was flung back by an inspired Taranaki defence led by hard men like Andy Slater and Kevin Barrett. A late try by halfback Richard Jarman gave Taranaki a win. But it was to be by a wafer thin margin, 13-11, so Turner’s turning down what seemed a certain three points became crucial.
Taranaki eventually lost the shield to a superior Waikato side who had Matthew Cooper in fine goalkicking form and that meant Harbour gained another challenge, this time on a Friday night in Hamilton. That was a novelty, too, for it was the first time a shield match had been played under lights. It was a match with extra ingredients, too, for it coincided with the first year of the Super 12, in which Waikato and Harbour had been such unhappy partners in the Chiefs. Not only was there a geographical and culture split but the two unions had squabbled endlessly as to who should be the Super 12 host. By then Osborne, Little, Bunce, Rush and Larsen had returned to the Harbour side but before a sellout crowd at Rugby Park, Waikato, boosted by one of Mark Cooksley’s best efforts, had held on for a 17-14 win. Any chance Harbour had of a win probably went when Bunce was forced from the field with an injury.
But now it was Auckland’s turn to challenge Waikato, with nothing in this amazing sequence having been pre-orclained, it must be emphasised. The pattern which had arisen had all been by coincidence and had simply followed the NPC draw, where certainly none of these permutations had been contemplated. Auckland, of course, were a much more imposing proposition than the young outfit which had come close to being upset by Bay of Plenty and had then been beaten by Taranaki. Their All Blacks had all arrived back from South Africa and had had enough time to refreshen from the triumph there. Back in their forwards were giants of the game in Olo Brown, Sean Fitzpatrick, Craig Dowd, Robin and Zinzan Brooke, Michael Jones and the young Andrew Blowers. Into the backline came Ofisa Tonu’u, Carlos Spencer and having recovered from injury Adrian Cashmore. Clearly with the sort of power this unit mustered, especially in the scrums, Auckland could approach the match in Hamilton, also under lights on a Friday night, with confidence.
Whether it deserved to be with the sort of confidence the then Auckland union chief executive Peter Scutts displayed was another matter though. Some days before the shield match was played in Hamilton Scutts took out a full page advertisement in the New Zealand Herald proclaiming Auckland’s match against North Harbour at Eden Park on October 12 as a shield match. The ad had no qualifications.
The timing prompted criticism of Auckland from throughout the country and only enhanced perceptions of arrogance. In his column in The Dominion in Wellington Ron Palenski, never a great admirer of Auckland, was especially caustic. “If Auckland do take the shield from Waikato and fulfil Scutts’s prophecy, it will be the least welcomed successful challenge since Lord Ranfurly handed it over 93 years ago,” he wrote. “The thought of the shield sitting in Auckland over the summer and, even worse, staying there for another winter is to think of negating all the good the noble old trophy has done this year.”
It wasn’t only non Aucklanders like Palenski who were horrified by the advertisement. Former Auckland captain and All Black lock Andy Haden was just as scathing. “I would suggest it has been done by someone who’s never put on a pair of boots, has never smelled dressing room liniment and doesn’t know what’s involved in winning a shield match or a test,” he said. “As an exercise in providing ammunition for your opposition it comes in the category of landmining your own dressing room. John Boe (Waikato’s coach) can stay at home. His team talk has been written for him.”
At the time Henry kept a stony silence and apparently he and Scutts had a good relationship. But team manager Rex Davy confirmed five years later that the Auckland team and management had been incensed. “We would never do anything that would give an edge to our opposition especially to such a proud opponent as Waikato,” Davy said. He pointed out both he and Henry were originally South Islanders, from Nelson and Christchurch, and were implicit believers in being under stated. “We never liked to be thought of as arrogant,” lie said. “We had a great belief in the heritage of the shield and that it belonged to all New Zealand. We saw ourselves simply as caretakers of the shield.”
Boe himself absolved the Auckland team of having anything to do with the advertisement and the union’s chief administration officer Don Shergold saw it as having one benefit. “All we know is that outside the half million covered by the Auckland union three million other New Zealanders will be behind Waikato,” he said.
The ad was said to have had the blessing of Auckland captain Zinzan Brooke, whose face was used in it with his distinctive mole replaced by a photo of the shield. Brooke, indeed, had been shown the ad before it appeared in the Herald but had not been told on which day it was appearing. He had assumed it would have been after the Waikato match.
As it happened, the power of the All Black-dominated Auckland pack was to be too much for Waikato and in a clinical, ruthless manner they went on to a 27-7 win. Two of their happiest players after the match were the midfield backs Lee Stensness and Eroni Clarke who had been in the team which lost the shield six weeks earlier to Taranaki, Clarke having been the captain. But the shield was not to remain, as Palenski had feared, in Auckland beyond the following winter: Much the same Waikato side, with Boe still the coach, recaptured it 12 months later to start what turned out to be a notable three year reign.”
From “The Shield A century of the Ranfurly Shield” by Lindsay Knight. Published 2002 by Celebrity Books. P.266-269