Bay of Plenty played a prominent role in the early history of rugby in this country. The 1888–89 New Zealand Natives (the first New Zealand representative rugby team to tour beyond Australia) included five Warbrick brothers from the small Bay of Plenty settlement of Matata. Dave Gallaher, the captain of the legendary 1905 All Black Originals, grew up in Katikati. But it was not until 1911 that a separate Bay of Plenty Rugby Football Union was established. Before then Bay of Plenty was included within the South Auckland union. Today Bay of Plenty plays in the ITM Cup, New Zealand’s top-level professional provincial competition. Along with Thames Valley, King Country, Waikato and Counties Manukau, Bay of Plenty is part of the Chiefs Super Rugby franchise. The union has been described as ‘the heartland of Maori rugby’, to which it has made a particularly significant contribution.
Les McLean was the first of the 20 players who have so far been selected for the All Blacks from Bay of Plenty. He played as a forward in the second and third tests against the 1921 Springboks – and at full-back against New South Wales in 1923.
Bay of Plenty’s most capped All Black is Hika Reid. Hailing from Ngongotaha near Rotorua, Reid’s grandfather, J. Hikatarewa, played for New Zealand Maori in 1913. Reid was selected for the All Blacks in 1980 when test incumbent Andy Dalton was unavailable for what turned out to be a disappointing tour of Australia. Reid’s performances at hooker, however, were impressive. A dynamic runner with ball in hand, he revolutionised the way in which hookers played the game. Sean Fitzpatrick was the most famous of those to adopt this high-energy approach. His try in the second test victory over Australia in Brisbane has been described as one of ‘the most spectacular tries in test history’. He started and finished a move that began 10 m from his own try line. Despite this sort of ability, for much of his career Reid was Andy Dalton’s understudy. By 1986 he had also slipped behind Fitzpatrick, and he was overlooked for the 1987 World Cup.
Greg Rowlands, a 1976 All Black to Argentina, holds the record for the most games – 161 – and most points – 1008 – for Bay of Plenty.
Bay of Plenty won the inaugural National Provincial Championship in 1976 before suffering the pain of relegation a year later. Top-flight status was quickly restored in 1978 and this time they stayed up until relegated again at the end of the 1991 season. The ‘90s were a tough time for the Bay and promotion proved elusive until the 2000 season. The Ranfurly Shield was equally elusive.
Before the 2004 challenge in Auckland, Bay of Plenty had lost all its 18 shield challenges. There had been a number of close calls over the years. In 1922 Bay of Plenty played Hawke’s Bay in the latter’s first defence in what was to prove to be a record-breaking five-year run. This should have ended before it began. Bay of Plenty scored beside the posts in the final minute to make the score 16–17. The conversion seemed a formality, but the man given the responsibility ‘trembled like a leaf’ and ‘almost missed the ball altogether’ when he finally took the kick.
In 1984, Bay of Plenty found itself up 10–0 against Canterbury before the inevitable comeback put the red and blacks ahead 18–13. In the final play of the match Bay prop Peter Kennedy surged for the line, on which players ended in a heap. Convinced the try had been scored, most of the Bay of Plenty players threw their arms in the air. The referee, Geoff Smith of Hawke’s Bay, disagreed. Television replays were inconclusive, and in any case there was no provision for referring decisions to them.
In 1996 long-suffering Bay of Plenty fans must have felt that they had at last broken their shield duck. With eight minutes to go, the second division team led Auckland 29–11. Auckland piled on the pressure and the points, but with time virtually up remained a converted try from victory. In an incredible case of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory, the Bay conceded a tighthead and Matt Carrington (a product of Bay of Plenty) scored in the corner. He converted his try from the sideline to give Auckland an incredible 30–29 victory.
With first division status restored for the 2001 season, Bay of Plenty was mauled 72–3 by Canterbury in the worst result in its shield history. Two years later and with most of Canterbury’s All Blacks absent, the Bay was defeated 31–26, a forward pass late in the game denying them a possible victory.
In 2004 Bay of Plenty joined in the celebrations of the centenary of the first match for the Ranfurly Shield by at long last lifting the famous Log o’ Wood. A resurgent Steamers team (as they were now marketed in a reference to the region’s thermal activity) had put together a strong championship campaign. Glen Jackson was in superb form as the Steamers took a 20–15 halftime lead, and his match haul of 23 points proved decisive in the 33–28 victory over Auckland. Wayne Ormond became the first Bay of Plenty captain to lift the shield in front of the hundreds of fans who had travelled from all over Bay of Plenty to watch the match. But shield success proved fleeting. Waikato was defeated in the first defence, but then Canterbury walked off with the prize 33–26. Later that season the Cantabs heaped more suffering on the Bay by defeating them in the NPC semi-finals.
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