Between 1976 and 1981 Manawatu was one of the strongest teams in New Zealand rugby, enjoying a 20-match unbeaten run against other provincial teams from 1977. Having finished as runners-up in the inaugural National Provincial Championship (NPC) in 1976, the green and whites claimed their first title in 1980 and came second again in 1981. The side of the early 1980s had eight All Blacks in its ranks. Between 1976 and 1978 Manawatu also successfully defended the Ranfurly Shield 13 times.
The Manawatu Rugby Football Union was established in 1886. Manawatu has twice amalgamated with neighbouring unions. A combined Manawatu–Horowhenua union (Manawhenua) held the Ranfurly Shield briefly in 1927 and made unsuccessful challenges in 1928 and 1929. In the late 1990s Manawatu amalgamated with nearby Hawke’s Bay in a bid to bring top-level rugby back to the area. As the Central Vikings this composite side made consecutive second division finals in 1997 and 1998 before the unions went their separate ways in 1999. Following the restructuring of New Zealand’s provincial rugby competition in 2006 Manawatu, now marketed as the ‘Turbos’, returned to the top flight of New Zealand rugby. Currently playing in the ITM Cup, the country′s top-level professional provincial competition, Manawatu is also part of the Hurricanes Super Rugby franchise. J.J. Holland scored a record 641 points for Manawatu between 1991 and 1996.
At least 35 All Blacks were playing in Manawatu when they made the step up to international rugby. The first three – Sam Cockcroft, John Mowlem and Graham Shannon – were members of the first New Zealand national side to be selected under the auspices of the New Zealand union in 1893. Alphonsus (‘Phonse’) Carroll made his All Black debut in 1920 having only played his first game of rugby in 1917. One of five brothers to play for Manawatu, Carroll turned to rugby after a brief career as a horse trainer. ‘Left of centre’ in his politics, he had been a conscientious objector during the First World War and later committed the ultimate sin for a rugby player by switching to rugby league. He became a dual international when selected for the Kiwis in 1925. Carroll was one of seven players sent home from the 1926–27 tour of Great Britain for constantly arguing with co-manager E.H. Mair. While their life bans from league were not lifted until 1962, Carroll’s application for reinstatement to rugby union was declined by the NZRFU in 1930. Two of his sons later represented Manawatu.
Following his All Black debut in 1977, rugged Manawatu tighthead prop Gary Knight was an automatic choice for New Zealand teams for the next decade. He represented the farming stock upon which New Zealand’s rugby-playing mythology had been built. Like many players in the amateur era, he was at times forced to choose between his livelihood and rugby. These practical considerations saw him turn down several international tours. He will always be remembered for his role in the ‘flour-bomb test’ at Eden Park at the end of the 1981 Springbok tour. His Manawatu and All Black colleague that day, first-five Doug Rollerson, wryly observed that had the sack of flour dropped from an aircraft piloted by an anti-apartheid protester hit him instead of Knight, it would probably have killed him. Knight played a record 145 games for Manawatu between 1975 and 1986.
Knight was preceded in both the Manawatu and All Black sides by Kent Lambert. By 1977 the shearer and part-time freezing worker was seen as the strongest prop in the land. He was also an outspoken critic of rugby’s amateur rules, which he believed imposed significant financial hardships on players. At the peak of his rugby powers Lambert signed a professional contract with the Australian rugby league side Penrith. The move did not pay off because of injuries.
Mark Shaw a member of the championship-winning 1980 side, achieved cult status in Manawatu and New Zealand rugby. Known by his nickname, ‘Cowboy’, Shaw was compared with the young Colin Meads. Weighing 95 kg and 1.88 m tall, he was a loose forward with a nose for the tryline. Like Meads he had a tough, physical attitude and was willing to act as the team enforcer.
A Manawatu All Black of a different mould was Bob Burgess. In 1970 he declined nomination for the All Black trials to select the team to tour South Africa in protest at the apartheid system. He then played brilliantly against the 1971 British Lions before suffering a severe injury in the third test. The quick reactions of Lions fullback (and medical student) J.P.R. Williams prevented Burgess from choking as he lay unconscious on Athletic Park. After touring the British Isles and France with the All Blacks in 1972–73, Burgess retired from representative rugby to complete his university studies before heading to France to play. After returning to Palmerston North in 1976, Burgess coached club rugby until 1981, when he campaigned actively against the Springbok tour of New Zealand. A near test-strength Springbok side won a tight encounter with the reigning NPC champions while police riot squads patrolled the streets around the Showgrounds.
The combined Manawhenua side was caught up in the fallout from one of the most controversial Ranfurly Shield matches ever, 1927's ‘Battle of Solway’. Hawke’s Bay defeated the Ranfurly Shield holders, Wairarapa, only to see the shield stay in Masterton when it was ruled that the Bay side contained an ineligible player. For six weeks both teams played ‘provisional’ shield matches. Hawke’s Bay defeated Manawhenua, who in turn defeated Wairarapa. When Hawke’s Bay’s appeal was dismissed Manawhenua was awarded the shield by virtue of their victory over Wairarapa. Manawhenua defended the shield twice before losing 17–6 to Canterbury.
Manawatu’s only tenure (to date) of the Ranfurly Shield began in August 1976 with a 12–10 victory over Auckland. It was ended by the same scoreline in September 1978. North Auckland’s victory was controversial. With the ground clock showing less than a minute to go, Jim Carroll (a son of Phonse Carroll) landed a dropped goal to give Manawatu a 10–9 lead. Referee Bill Adlam continued play as the local fans waited expectantly for the final whistle. By the time Manawatu was awarded a scrum feed 17 m from its posts, about five minutes of extra time had been played. North Auckland rearranged its scrum, won a tighthead and forced Manawatu’s halfback to concede a penalty. ‘Chippie’ Semenoff duly landed the winning kick – off the left-hand upright. Referee Adlam was jostled, kicked and punched as he left the field. But his argument that the ground clock had not stopped during two long injury breaks was supported by one of the match photographers.
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