Since the 1920s it has been said that ‘when Auckland rugby is strong New Zealand rugby is strong’. When the All Blacks won the first (and to date their only) World Cup in 1987, ten of the team that played in the final came from Auckland. Established in 1883, the Auckland Rugby Football Union has consistently set the benchmark for other provincial teams. Its success has made it one of the teams others like to beat – and see beaten. Auckland currently plays in the ITM Cup, the country’s top-level professional provincial competition. Along with Northland and North Harbour, it makes up the Blues Super Rugby franchise.
Auckland’s Eden Park, the home of Auckland rugby since 1925 (and viewed by many as the home of New Zealand rugby) has seen many dramatic moments in Auckland and All Black rugby. It was the venue for the inaugural Rugby World Cup final in 1987 and will also host the final in 2011.
Auckland has dominated the National Provincial Championship since its inception in 1976 with a record 16 titles. It has also won more Ranfurly Shield matches than any other union.
The team that has consistently challenged Auckland’s number one status is Canterbury. Games between the two have the added intensity of north versus south and city versus country. As of 2009 Auckland had won 13 of the 21 Ranfurly Shield clashes (with one draw) between the two. It has lifted the shield from Canterbury five times since 1971.
Several of these games have been described as ‘classics’ or the ‘greatest’. The 1985 match in which Auckland ended Canterbury’s record-equalling tenure of 25 matches was dubbed the ‘Match of the Century’. This pulsating match played before a record crowd of 52,000 saw Canterbury claw back a 24–0 half-time deficit to come within a whisker of pulling off one of the great shield comebacks. Having held on 28–23, Auckland then set a new benchmark with 61 consecutive defences. Grant Fox established a new record for the most shield points (932), as did John Kirwan with 44 tries.
In 1960 30,000 fans – a record for a midweek match – poured into Eden Park for the defence against Canterbury. There were no evening kick-offs under lights back then, so clearly many Aucklanders pulled a ‘sickie’ that day. This classic shield encounter was worth it.
The game started 10 minutes late after the Auckland team bus was held up in traffic. This led to one of the Canterbury officials to declare that Auckland had forfeited the shield by default. The lead changed several times during the match and with one minute to play Canterbury led 18–14. Only a converted try (worth five points) would keep the shield in Auckland. More importantly, Canterbury had the feed to a scrum and the opportunity to effectively end the match with a kick to touch. Colin Currie, Auckland’s hooker, pulled off the tight-head against Canterbury’s test hooker Dennis Young and the ball came to Mac Herewini. His cross-kick found Waka Nathan, known to many as the ‘Black Panther’. Nathan, described by Colin Meads as the ‘most virile runner with the ball in hand’, ran 15 m to score under the posts. Mike Cormack’s conversion gave the ‘Aucks’ an improbable 19–18 victory.
Sports fans can’t help but compare modern players with their predecessors, yet this exercise is difficult. Players today play more and have greater opportunity to set records and gain exposure. Auckland rugby is littered with names from all generations that have made a significant contribution to both provincial and national rugby.
Auckland’s premier club rugby competition, the Gallaher Shield, is named in honour of Dave Gallaher, who played for Ponsonby and Auckland but is best remembered as captain of the legendary 1905 All Black Originals. Gallaher died from wounds he received at Passchendaele in 1917, prompting the great New Zealand rugby writer Terry McLean to later observe how in death Gallaher ‘acquired a mystique’. His grave in a war cemetery in Belgium has become a shrine for many New Zealand travellers. Gallaher was one of thirteen All Blacks to lose their lives in the war. His Ponsonby club is second only to Dunedin’s University club in terms of producing All Blacks.
As a player and coach Fred Allen (‘the Needle’) gained a reputation for developing an attractive brand of running rugby. Born in Oamaru and having played for Canterbury before the Second World War, Allen came to national attention as a leading figure in the NZEF ‘Kiwis’ Army team that toured Britain at the end of the war. Described by the famous rugby commentator Winston McCarthy as ‘absolutely immaculate in his football … a beautiful footballer’, he debuted for the All Blacks after settling in Auckland in 1946. Allen captained the All Blacks in all of his 21 games in the black jersey. Following the disappointing 4–0 series loss in South Africa in 1949, Allen hung up his boots and turned to coaching. It was in this role that he truly stamped his mark on Auckland and New Zealand rugby. In the early 1960s Auckland became the dominant force of New Zealand rugby due largely to his coaching. Higher honours followed and he became an All Black selector and then All Black coach in 1966. In 14 tests under his tutelage the All Blacks were not only unbeaten, but played attractive running rugby. In June 2010 Allen became ‘Sir Fred’ when he was made a Knight Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit in the Queen’s Birthday Honours List.
One of those who benefited from Allen’s coaching was the Auckland and All Black legend Wilson Whineray, who was All Black captain from 1958 to 1965. The All Blacks lost only four of the 30 tests in which he was captain. The doyen of New Zealand rugby writers, T.P. McLean, ‘unhesitatingly’ acclaimed Whineray ‘as New Zealand’s greatest captain.’ He was part of a formidable All Black pack that included Colin Meads, Kel Tremain and Ken Gray. A lineout move perfected by the All Blacks on the 1963–64 northern hemisphere tour was known as ‘Willie Away’ after its key feature, which involved Whineray peeling away from the lineout to receive the ball.
Another Aucklander to make his mark as an All Black captain was Sean Fitzpatrick. As well as playing 154 games for Auckland Fitzpatrick played a record 92 tests for the All Blacks between 1986 and 1997 – 51 as captain.
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