Established in 1985, North Harbour is one of New Zealand’s youngest provincial rugby unions. Since joining this country’s provincial rugby elite by winning promotion to the first division in 1987, North Harbour has forged a reputation for playing attractive, running rugby.
As the Auckland metropolitan area spread north of the harbour bridge there was pressure to create a new union that would give players in the area a greater chance of becoming first-class representatives. The North Harbour Rugby Union covers the area bounded by the ‘three harbours’: Mahurangi, Waitemata and Kaipara. Harbour currently plays in the ITM Cup, the country’s top-level professional provincial competition. Along with Auckland and Northland, it is part of the Blues Super Rugby franchise.
North Harbour has never won the top division of New Zealand’s provincial championship. Between 1993 and 1995 Harbour made three consecutive first division semi-finals. In 1994 Canterbury were smashed 59–27, earning Harbour a home final against Auckland. Having lost to Auckland in the semis the previous year, North Harbour was looking for an opportunity to at last secure bragging rights over their ‘big brother’ from the other side of the bridge. Auckland prevailed 22–16 in a particularly rugged match at Takapuna’s Onewa Domain. This was a bitter pill to swallow for the Harbour players and supporters. For Auckland, it was as if the younger sibling had been put in his place. The intensity of this match helped to establish the ‘battle of the bridge’ in the national rugby calendar.
North Harbour broke its Ranfurly Shield hoodoo at the eleventh attempt when they defeated Canterbury 21-17 in the final challenge of the 2006 season. In 1996 North Harbour was part of one of the shield’s most unusual seasons when they found themselves challenging for the shield three times within six weeks. Auckland lost the shield to Taranaki in their third defence of the season. Harbour, Taranaki’s first challengers were defeated 13–11. Taranaki were then defeated by Waikato in their next defence and as luck would have it Waikato’s next home game (and automatic defence) was against Harbour. Once more Harbour came up just short, going down 17–14 in Hamilton. Almost unbelievably they were given a third crack at the prize when Auckland defeated Waikato in the penultimate challenge of the season. This time it was literally a bridge too far with Auckland winning convincingly, 69–27.
Harbour’s hold on the shield in 2007 was all too brief. Their season began with heavy wins over teams from the second tier of the domestic competition, the Heartland Championship. Thames Valley were dispatched 69–0 before Horowhenua-Kapiti were steam-rolled 99–6. The first serious opposition came in the form of Taranaki, who were defeated 19–13. In the next challenge things went horribly wrong. Harbour suffered the worst ever defeat by a shield holder in going down 52–7 to Waikato.
In its short history North Harbour has produced a number of distinguished All Blacks, including the iconic captain, Wayne (‘Buck’) Shelford. One of nearly 30 North Harbour players to have represented his country, Shelford is remembered as much for the ‘Bring Back Buck’ campaign that followed his dumping as All Black captain in 1990 as for his brilliance as a no. 8. Having been selected for the aborted 1985 tour of South Africa, Shelford made his test debut for the All Blacks against France in 1986 and was a victim in the infamous ‘Battle of Nantes’. Shelford’s resilience in the face of the injuries he suffered that day endeared him to many fans at home and helped create a legend. He later described what happened:
I got kicked in the face first in a ruck and ended up spitting out various parts of 3 broken teeth. Secondly I got knocked out cold by Jean Pierre Garuet. He flew into a ruck and hit me in the right side of the forehead. I am not quite sure whether this happened after the groin or before, as I was in lala land from then on. The third incident, I was setting up a ball in a tackle zone and I believe Daniel Dubroca tried to kick the ball out of my hands, catching me in the groin. It bloody well hurt at the time, so I just chucked the old proverbial Jesus water down the shorts to make it feel better. That didn’t do a lot, so we just played on. I went off the field with 20 minutes to go not really knowing where I was, let alone what day it was. As history shows, we lost the game, and it was not until I got changed that I realised that my scrotum had been torn, and that the testicle was hanging a good 4 or 5 inches out of the scrotum. It was all put back into place and stitched up nicely.
By 1987 Shelford was clearly the best no. 8 in the country, and he played in five of New Zealand’s six matches in the triumphant World Cup campaign. After taking over the captaincy from David Kirk for the end-of-season tour to Japan, he led the All Blacks through one of their most dominant periods as they remained unbeaten from 1987 to 1990. 1988’s 19-all draw with Australia was the only blemish on this record. Following the two tests against Scotland in 1990, the selectors dropped a bombshell by dropping Shelford. There was a groundswell of support for the man many believed typified all that All Black rugby was supposed to be with his tough, uncompromising play. Following defeat by Australia in the third test of the series, ‘Bring Back Buck’ signs began appearing at grounds all over the country. Talkback radio spoke of little else for a time. But the selectors never brought Buck back, and in 1991 Shelford retired as a player. He became assistant coach of North Harbour in 1997 before taking the lead role between 1998 and 2002.
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