In 2001 East Coast, New Zealand’s smallest rugby union, captured the hearts of rugby supporters throughout the land with a fairytale run to the final of Division Two of the NPC. While the resident population of the East Coast is small, its rugby team draws on the support of more than 70,000 people of Ngāti Porou descent scattered across the country. During the team’s dream run in 2001 many of these supporters returned to Ruatōria to cheer on ‘Ngāti Porou East Coast’ at Whakarua Park. Some saw East Coast’s secret weapon as its ‘whanau spirit’. Orcades Crawford, the Coast’s inspirational prop forward, added that ‘when you put on a sky blue jersey it’s totally different to anything else – it’s probably better than the All Blacks [jersey]’.
The East Coast Rugby Football Union was established in 1922 and joined the national body a year later. Always one of the minnows of New Zealand rugby, East Coast competes in the semi-professional Heartland Championship. Along with Wanganui, Poverty Bay, Hawke’s Bay, Wairarapa Bush, Manawatu, Horowhenua-Kapiti and Wellington, East Coast is part of the Hurricanes Super Rugby franchise.
Despite its small size, East Coast can lay claim to one of the all-time greats of New Zealand rugby: George Nepia. He and Andy Jefferd (1980–81) have been the Coast′s only All Blacks. Both first came to prominence while playing for larger unions.
At the age of 19 Nepia was one of the stars of the 1924–25 All Blacks, the ‘Invincibles’. The only fullback selected, he played in all 32 matches on the team’s tour of the British Isles, France and Canada. His performances prompted a leading British journalist to write, ‘it is not for me a question of whether Nepia was the best fullback in history. It is a question of which of the others is fit to loose the laces of his Cotton Oxford boots’. But after that four-test tour, Nepia only played another five test matches for the All Blacks, four of them against the 1930 British Lions. One reason was his non-selection, on racial grounds, for the 1928 tour to South Africa. He was also restricted by injury and illness and was unavailable for several tours. His status in New Zealand rugby was best demonstrated in the mid-1980s when – more than 50 years after his last All Black game – he was the subject of a widely viewed This Is Your Life television programme.
Morgan Waitoa holds the record for the most appearances for East Coast, with 115 games between 1979 and 2006. Eli Manuel scored a record 406 points between 1985 and 1996.
East Coast has never won the Ranfurly Shield and has made just seven challenges since its first in 1953, scoring its first try in a shield match against Waikato in 2013. A 115–6 thrashing by Auckland in 1997 highlighted the gulf between the country’s largest union and the smallest. Yet within a few seasons the Coast stood on the brink of promotion to the top flight of New Zealand provincial rugby.
East Coast declined promotion to the second division of the NPC for the 2000 season after defeating neighbours Poverty Bay in the 1999 third division final. With its limited resources the Coast had to weigh up carefully the cost of a campaign in the second division. There was also a sense that the squad needed to be strengthened before a competitive team could be fielded in the higher grade. Players of Ngāti Porou descent were recruited from around the country. One of them was Orcades Crawford, who returned home after enjoying considerable success with Hawke’s Bay, the Central Vikings and the Hurricanes. With the benefit of his hard-nosed experience another third division championship was wrapped up with a 25–21 victory over North Otago. This time East Coast accepted promotion.
East Coast won over many rugby fans during a memorable 2001 season. The Coast quickly established itself as one of the sides to beat in the second division. Victory away to Manawatu late in the round-robin would guarantee a home semi-final. However Manawatu were unbeaten at home for the season and had never lost to East Coast. On match day East Coast were boosted by 3000 vocal fans who did much to negate Manawatu’s home advantage. A 24–22 victory ensured that in their first season in the second division East Coast would host Nelson Bays for the right to play off for first-division status.
The day of the semi-final began with a street parade in Ruatōria as thousands of Ngāti Porou fans arrived from all over the country. A carnival atmosphere greeted the players when they ran on to Whakarua Park. East Coast had lost on the road to Nelson Bays in round-robin play and at half-time Bays led 12–9. Urged on by a record crowd of 6000 which at times resorted to singing the famous 28th Maori Battalion anthem, ‘March to Victory’, Mano Flutey kicked seven penalties to bring the Coast home 21–12. Next stop was the final in Napier against unbeaten Hawke’s Bay.
The fact that a number of the Coast team had cut their rugby-playing teeth at Te Aute College and gone on to play for Hawke’s Bay added extra spice to the match. A large contingent of Ngāti Porou fans descended on Napier’s McLean Park. With less than 10 minutes to go the Bay led 30–10 and the fairytale run seemed to have come to a nightmare end. With pride on the line East Coast scored three tries in the final minutes, the last from a 45-m rolling maul. Hawke’s Bay hung on to win 30–27. The New Zealand Herald summed up the match and the season: ‘East Coast won the battle of the supporters; they’d already won the hearts of New Zealand’s sporting public’.
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