The Canterbury Rugby Union was established in 1879 and stands alongside Wellington as the oldest rugby union in the country. Canterbury has always been one of the powerhouses of New Zealand rugby. The ‘Cantabs’ rank second only to Auckland in number of Ranfurly Shield victories and national provincial championships won. Expecting success, Cantabrians have strongly supported their team over the years. Detractors accuse them of being ‘one-eyed’, but the parochialism of Canterbury supporters has given the province a special place in New Zealand rugby. Canterbury currently plays in the professional ITM Cup, which in 2015 it had won for seven of the previous eight years. As the base for the Crusaders Super rugby franchise, Canterbury has made a major contribution to a team that has won more Super rugby titles than any other.
Christchurch’s iconic Lancaster Park (later known as AMI Stadium) was the home of Canterbury rugby almost from the beginning. This venue hosted many famous matches involving the red and black of Canterbury and the all black of New Zealand. Following the February 2011 earthquakes, Rugby League Park in Addington was redeveloped as a rugby venue and rebranded as AMI Stadium.
Birth of a union
Football in its earliest form was first played in Christchurch in 1854, and Christ’s College was playing a version of rugby by 1862. In 1876 the grandly named Kindersley Camilo Montague Lewin, who had attended Rugby School in England, persuaded the Christchurch Football Club to adopt the Rugbeian game. Lewin was keen to curb the progress of Victorian Rules and set about organising New Zealand’s first union of rugby clubs. He found a kindred spirit in George Hamersley, a former England rugby international who had set up two clubs in Timaru. It was here that delegates met in July 1879 to form an eight-club Canterbury Rugby Union stretching from Rangiora in the north to Timaru in the south. In 1888 South Canterbury split away to form a separate union based in Timaru. In 1904 an Ashburton County Union was established as a sub-union of South Canterbury. This moved to Canterbury in 1905 and gained full union status in 1927. The name was changed to Mid-Canterbury in 1952.
Unhappy at the thought of ‘outsiders’ deciding what was best for their rugby, Canterbury, Otago and Southland initially resisted attempts to form a New Zealand Rugby Football Union. Following the creation of a national body in 1892 the three southern unions were frozen out of interprovincial games against NZRFU members. Pressured by its clubs to relent, Canterbury affiliated with the NZRFU in 1894.
Any list of great Canterbury players includes some of the all-time greats of New Zealand rugby. One surname that stands out in the history of Canterbury rugby is Deans. The Deans Stand at AMI Stadium is named in honour of Bob Deans, the player at the centre of the infamous 1905 All Blacks ‘non-try’ defeat by Wales. This incident remains one of the most controversial in New Zealand’s international rugby history. In 1988 Bob Deans’ great-nephew Bruce Deans scored a try on debut as the All Blacks crushed the Welsh 52–3 at Lancaster Park. Some fans believed that a ‘rugby wrong’ had been righted that day. Bruce’s elder brother Robbie Deans also played for New Zealand and went on to establish a formidable reputation as a coach in his home province. He scored a record 1625 points for Canterbury between 1979 and 1990. Controversy surrounded the Deans name once more in 2008 when Robbie, having been overlooked for the All Black position, became head coach of the Wallabies, the Australian national side.
Fullback Fergie McCormick and his contemporary, loose forward Alex (‘Grizz’) Wyllie, both played more than 200 games for the red and blacks. McCormick, with 222 matches for Canterbury between 1958 and 1975, shares the New Zealand provincial record with Taranaki’s Ian Eliason. They took the tough, uncompromising style typical of Canterbury rugby into the All Black sides they played in during the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. Canterbury has also produced a number of fine first five-eighths, including Wayne Smith (who also coached the All Blacks) and Dan Carter. In June 2010 Carter became the first All Black to score more than 1000 test points. Fellow Cantabrian Andrew Mehrtens was the previous record-holder with 967.
Canterbury has consistently challenged Auckland’s status as New Zealand’s most successful rugby union. Games between the two have taken on the added intensity of North versus South and city versus country. Auckland has won 13 of their 21 shield clashes (with one draw), and has ended Canterbury’s hold on the shield five times, in 1971, 1985, 1995, 2003 and 2007.
Canterbury’s first successful challenge was in 1927, when it beat Manawhenua 17–6 in Palmerston North. Its first shield tenure of any length began in 1931 and ended in 1934 after 15 successful defences. Between 1953 and 1956 the Cantabs held onto the shield in 23 challenges.
The intense rivalry with Auckland was perfectly illustrated by the 1960 challenge. A crowd of 30,000 – a record for a midweek match – poured into Eden Park. The game started 10 minutes late after the Auckland team bus was held up in traffic. Meanwhile a Canterbury official tried to claim the shield by forfeit. The lead changed several times during the match and with time almost up Canterbury led 18–14. More importantly, it had the feed to a scrum for what could well be the last play of the match. But Canterbury’s test hooker Denis Young lost a tight-head to Auckland’s Colin Currie. The ball came to Mac Herewini, who with a cross-kick found flanker Waka Nathan, who ran 15 m to score behind the posts. Mike Cormack’s conversion gave Auckland an improbable 19–18 victory.
Revenge was sweet when Canterbury lifted the shield from Auckland in 1972 – only to lose it in one of the biggest upsets in Ranfurly Shield history in the first challenge of 1973. Unheralded Marlborough stunned the rugby nation by winning 13–6.
The 1985 challenge in which Auckland ended Canterbury’s record-equalling tenure of 25 defences has been labelled the ‘Match of the Century’. In front of 52,000 fans, Grizz Wyllie’s Canterbury came back from 24–0 down at half-time to within a bounce of the ball of victory. Having held on to win 28–23, Auckland set about creating a new benchmark of 61 consecutive defences.
I went to a boxing match and a game of rugby broke out…
The 1971 tour match between Canterbury and the British Lions ranks sixth on the Telegraph’s 2007 list of the ‘top 50 imperfect sporting moments’. This game was described as ‘one of the bloodiest, most premeditated assaults in rugby history’. The Lions had won their first eight matches, and there was talk that something had to be done to slow their progress before the first test the following Saturday. By the end of a match played in front of 53,000 parochial fans, the tour was over for both Lions props– Scotland’s Sandy Carmichael and Ireland’s Ray McLoughlin – and the Irish no. 8, Mick Hipwell. Irish flanker Fergus Slattery was concussed and missing two teeth. The visitors had nevertheless won the game 14–3, and they went on to win the test in Dunedin 9–3. Their only loss in a victorious tour was 12–22 in the second test – at Lancaster Park.
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