September 14 1985
Game of the Century – Canterbury v Auckland 1985
Neither of the two coaches, Canterbury’s Alex Wyllie and Auckland’s John Hart, is convinced that this was the standout match of each of their respective careers. Wyllie believed Canterbury’s 1983 defence against Wellington was the best and most dramatic ot their shield era. And Hart, mindful there was failure in each spell of one or the other side’s defensive pattern, has always believed the match played by Auckland and Canterbury. at Eden Park a year later was technically superior. There have been, too, comebacks from sides better than the Canterbury recovery of the second spell, Auckland’s against Bay of Plenty in 1996 for example and a later Canterbury side against Wellington in 2001.
Yet when anyone nominates the Auckland-Canterbury shield clash of 1985, as has happened so often, as “the match of the century” there is never really too much dissent, It is beyond any argument one of the sporting contests which can be rightly tagged a classic, something like the Wimbledon tennis final of 1980 between Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe or the 1974 world heavyweight boxing bout between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier in Manila. In clashes like that where the respect is mutual there are no real losers.
Jumping away to a 24-0 lead by halftime, Auckland then had to withstand a furious finish by Canterbury in the second spell before surviving to win 28-23. By fulltime a crowd which had filled Lancaster Park beyond its capacity of about 50,000 was in ferment as Canterbury came near a try which would have given them what had seemed at halftime to be an improbable win. But there was a little more to this match than the excitement which took place on the pitch.
What made the 1985 shield special both at the time and with the passage of the years was the context and circumstances under which it was played. Without any need for the marketeers who seem to be an indispensable part of modern professional sport the match was a promotional dream and for weeks leading up to the match the media, mainly newspapers in those days, had eagerly splashed anything about in on their front pages. Frequently such hype is unjustified, contrived and artificial. But this match was an exception. It contained so many elements which made it remarkable.
Since taking the shield from Wellington in 1982 Canterbury by the time of the 1985 match against Auckland had equalled the record sequence for defences, the 25 the
Auckland sides of Fred Allen had compiled between 1960 and 1963. It was not entirely coincidental and owed much to Canterbury’s laudable gesture in how their 1985 programme was structured. But it was entirely proper that the Auckland side should be given the responsibility of defending the record their predecessors had achieved 20 to 25 years earlier. Auckland themselves had done something similar arranging their 1993 schedule so that the side they had to beat to go to 25 was Hawkes Bay whose own predecessors in the 1920s had set the record of 24.
There was another dimension to the 1985 match. For the past three or four years Canterbury and Auckland had been the dominant sides of provincial rugby and under the coaching of Wyllie and Hart they had lifted the bar to an unprecedented level. They had, in effect, in their different ways taken New Zealand rugby to the verge of professionalism. While Canterbury had been defending the shield for so long and with such distinction Auckland had been accomplishing their own deeds, especially in 1984 when with some spectacular rugby they had swept to the national provincial championship title.
The other aspect to the 1985 match was that it came in the wake of one of New Zealand rugby’s most difficult years when because of a legal challenge the All Black tour to South Africa, on which many of the Canterbury and Auckland players were to have gone, was cancelled. The sort of match the shield game turned out to be helped ease some of the bitterness and the game could not have been more timely. One who captured the match’s flavour best of all was one of the most literate sports writers New Zealand has had Alex Veysey who penned a critique in the New Zealand (Sunday) Times which was a gem. “Too often rugby occasions which have had the elements of potential greatness have wallowed into anonymity,” he wrote. “This was a magnificent exception.”
In 1983 Auckland had challenged Canterbury, only to have been humiliated. But two years later Hart and his chief lieutenant and now the captain Andy Haden had carefully analysed everything that had gone wrong and had absorbed all the lessons. Several changes were made in the preparation. This time they arrived in Christchurch as late as possible and they chose to stay at the Russley Hotel because it was reasonably secluded. This enabled them to avoid the hype which was generated with such enthusiasm throughout Canterbury. Hart also made himself the sole focus for the media. The only exception was a radio interview with Haden by Rocky Patterson in the course of which there were several references, clearly in the hope they would be noticed by referee Bob Francis, to Canterbury’s lineout tactics of 1983.
Hart knew, too, from 1983 that Lancaster Park would be “a cauldron of fire,” which could unsettle even the experienced Auckland players. So he countered this by urging the many Auckland supporters who had come to Christchurch to bedeck themselves in blue and white.
One problem for Hart and Haden was what to do if they should win the toss and whether to take first use of a sharp southerly wind which was more brisk than it seemed from the stands. They reasoned that they should take it first and take the game to Canterbury and build up as big a lead as possible because of the likelihood of Canterbury, as had been their pattern, finishing strongly. The decision was to be academic. Winning the toss, Canterbury’s captain Don Hayes conceded first use of the wind and that could not have suited the Auckland game plan better. Hayes would earn criticism from those whose wisdom comes after an event. But he should have been forgiven for he had done the same against Wellington at Athletic Park in 1982 and on that occasion it had worked.
Fears that the game would not live up to its billing and would be an anticlimax looked as if they would materialise when Auckland raced away to their big halftime lead. Canterbury, especially Robbie Deans at fullback and Victor Simpson at centre, made many errors which Auckland exploited for tries by Joe Stanley, John Kirwan Terry Wright and John Drake. When Steve McDowell landed a fifth try early in the second spell it seemed as if a fine Canterbury reign would end in the ignominy of a rout.
But Wyllie had not panicked at halftime, his only concern being when a spectator had threatened him with a chain as he returned to his seat. His only message to his players had been along these lines … if Auckland can score 24 points in one half then so can you. And Canterbury very nearly carried out his instructions to the letter. As the second spell wore on they were as dominant as Auckland had been in the first gaining tries from Bruce Deans, Craig Green, Wayne Smith and Albert Anderson and in the final minute almost getting a fifth. A Smith up-and-under landed into the Auckland ingoal area and bounced crazily until it was slapped dead by a desperate Auckland hand. And so as one great shield era ended, another which would be even greater was about to begin.
Besides the stirring quality of the rugby the 1985 Auckland—Canterbury shield match was significant in another respect. It perhaps did more than anything else to remove what had been till then a still strict policy on live telecasts by the New Zealand Rugby Union. As long ago as 1972, of course, the NZRU had relaxed its stand against live telecasts but retained a measure of conservatism and control and the policy was nowhere near as liberal as it would become in the 1990s and into the present when it almost seems as if television now has too much of a say.
Despite the huge interest in the Auckland—Canterbury match the NZRU of the time stood firm against allowing it to be telecast live. There were no worries about affecting the attendance at the shield but more the effects on the other representative matches also being played on the day of the shield game, September 14. There was not then the flexibility which exists now where with more floodlit grounds games can be spread over Friday and Saturday nights and on Sunday afternoons. It was almost standard practice in the 1980s for every provincial match in the country to kick off on Saturday afternoons around 2.30. Some options were proposed such as the shield game kicking off at 3.30 and other matches switching to noon or 1pm and for the shield match to be played on the Sunday. But it does not appear these were considered seriously and an attempt by the Auckland member of the NZRU council, Ron Don, to have the decision against a live telecast changed was also beaten. Television New Zealand also made a late overture for a live telecast but made only a token offer of apparently around $10,000, which no one could blame the NZRU for dismissing.
Money, though, was not the main issue. What rugby needed at that time after a season of strife and trauma because of the South African tour controversy, had been a good will gesture and some meaningful public relations. The shield match would have been an ideal vehicle. It was difficult to find too many people who did not think a mistake had been made and it was perhaps one reason why in a few years time administrators embraced television with a haste which has become embarrassing. Canterbury’s Warwick Taylor summed up a general feeling when he said: ‘If only one kid had been won to rugby after the shield match it would have been worthwhile. Similarly if one mother had seen it and had decided it wasn’t such a bad game after all.’”
From “The Shield. A century of the Ranfurly Shield” by Lindsay Knight. Published 2002 by Celebrity Books. P. 216-218.