The Hawke’s Bay Rugby Football Union was established in 1884, making it the oldest provincial union outside the four main centres. The ‘Magpies’ have a proud Ranfurly Shield pedigree with 47 successful defences. This ranks them third-equal on the all-time list, alongside Waikato and behind only Auckland and Canterbury. For a good chunk of the 1920s and in the late 1960s Hawke’s Bay set the standard for provincial rugby in this country.
In 1997, shortly after the introduction of professional rugby, Hawke’s Bay merged with nearby Manawatu to form the Central Vikings with the goal of giving local players the opportunity of playing in the first division of the NPC. The composite team won the 1998 second division title before the two unions agreed to return to their original structures. Hawke’s Bay currently plays in the ITM Cup, the country′s top-level professional provincial competition. Along with East Coast, Poverty Bay, Taranaki, Wanganui, Manawatu, Wairarapa-Bush, Horowhenua-Kapiti and Wellington, Hawke’s Bay is part of the Hurricanes Super Rugby franchise.
Among the nearly 50 men from the Bay who have played for the All Blacks are some of the greatest names in New Zealand rugby. They include the three Brownlie brothers and George Nepia in the 1920s, and 1960s star Kel Tremain. Neil Thimbleby played a record 158 games for Hawke’s Bay between 1959 and 1971. Jarod Cunningham’s 998 points scored between 1990 and 1998 remains a record for the Bay.
Hawke’s Bay rugby is defined by two golden Ranfurly Shield eras: 1922–26 and 1967–69. In both periods the Bay became the benchmark for rugby in this country, and the 1920s side was truly something special. It scored 720 points in 24 successful defences and conceded just 204. Players such as the legendary George Nepia, Jimmy Mill, Bert Grenside, Jackie Blake and the mighty Brownlie brothers – Laurie, Cyril and Maurice – all wore the black and white of the Bay with distinction. Good as these players and their teammates were, much of the Bay’s remarkable success was due to the efforts of the astute and formidable Norm McKenzie, Hawke’s Bay’s selector-coach during this golden run.
Norman McKenzie, one of five brothers to have played first-class rugby, became a Hawke’s Bay selector in 1916. Along with his brothers Ted and Bert, he would play a key role in the controversial 1927 ‘Battle of Solway’.
Hawke’s Bay’s 19–9 victory over Wellington in their 1922 shield challenge came as a complete shock to the team from the capital. Nothing in Hawke’s Bay’s recent history suggested that the outcome would be anything other than a routine victory for Wellington. Little was known about the Bay team, which McKenzie had assembled after scouring the province for men with individual brilliance who could also become effective team players. Hawke’s Bay’s dream nearly turned into a nightmare within weeks. They held on 17–16 over Bay of Plenty only because the challengers failed to convert a last-minute try near the posts.
By 1926 Hawke’s Bay had assembled a remarkably strong squad. The arrival of Bert Cooke from Auckland and Lance Johnson from Wellington completed a backline so strong that even recent All Blacks of the calibre of Lui Paewai and Tommy Corkill couldn’t break into the team. Some of New Zealand rugby’s finest unions were dispatched with ease – Wellington 58–8, Auckland 41–11 and Wairarapa 77–14. There seemed no reason to think that the Bay’s run would end any time soon.
Over the summer of 1926–27 Hawke’s Bay was rocked by a number of departures. George Nepia moved to East Coast and Bert Cooke and ‘Bull’ Irvine left for Wairarapa. In the first challenge of the 1927 season Wairarapa, so convincingly defeated the season before, ended the Bay’s tenure with a hard-fought 15–11 win. Some expressed relief that Hawke’s Bay′s reign had finally ended. Even Norman McKenzie admitted that the shield needed to move to maintain its appeal. But not everyone in the Bay was so willing to accept the loss of a possession to which they had become accustomed. The opportunity for redemption came just a month later with a rematch in Masterton. A unique feature of this game was the involvement of the McKenzie family. Norman’s brother Ted was the Wairarapa coach and Bert McKenzie was the referee. Hawke’s Bay won the Battle of Solway 21–10 but Wairarapa kept the shield because Wattie Barclay was later ruled to have been ineligible to play on residential grounds. In the meantime the Bay ‘defended’ the shield twice in challenges that were expunged from the record.
Though there was a brief shield tenure in 1934, Bay supporters had to wait until 1966 for a rerun of the 1920s. After Waikato was defeated at the end of the season, shield fever gripped the province. Over the next three seasons street parades preceded 21 successful defences. As in the 1920s, success was due in no small part to the coach. Colin Le Quesne – ‘The Fuehrer’ – was a meticulous planner who had represented the Bay with some distinction during the 1930s. He had welded together a formidable team which contained many fine players who went on to represent their country. None stood out more than the captain, Kel Tremain.
At the time Tremain’s status in New Zealand rugby equalled that of Colin Meads. As an agricultural field cadet he studied at Massey and Lincoln agricultural colleges. So after debuting for Southland in 1957 Tremain represnted Manawatu, Canterbury and Auckland before settling in Hawke’s Bay in 1962. He was a try-scoring machine from the side of the scrum. In 268 first class matches he scored 136 tries, a record not beaten by another forward until Zinzan Brooke did so in the 1980s and ‘90s.
Kel Tremain died in 1992 after a short illness, aged only 54. His place in New Zealand rugby is recognised by the annual award for the outstanding player of the season, which is named in his honour.
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