Dubbed the ‘Old Golds’ because of the colour of their playing strip, the North Otago Rugby Union is one of the country’s smallest. From 1881 an Otago rugby union stretched from the Waitaki River in the north to Bluff in the south. North Otago eventually followed Southland’s lead and broke away from Otago. A North Otago sub-union was formed in 1904, and in 1927 this affiliated with the NZRFU in its own right.
North Otago has in recent years played well in the lower divisions of New Zealand provincial rugby. It competes in the Heartland Championship for New Zealand’s amateur and semi-professional provincial unions. Along with Otago and Southland, North Otago is part of the Highlanders Super Rugby franchise.
Drawing on players from the predominately farming Waitaki district, North Otago is based in the coastal town of Oamaru. Their home ground is Whitestone Contracting Stadium, formerly known as Centennial Park.
The Ranfurly Shield was long regarded as the symbol of provincial rugby superiority in this country. North Otago's first challenge for the Log o’ Wood was in 1938, when they lost to neighbours Otago 12–0. Their closest result came in 1974, when they lost 9–3 to their other neighbours, South Canterbury. More recent matches have seen the Old Golds make Ranfurly Shield history for the wrong reasons. In 1993 Auckland defended the shield in Oamaru in the 60th defence of a record tenure. The star-studded holders were stunned when to the delight of the home-town supporters Brent McEwan scored a try from a set move to give North Otago a 5–0 lead. The floodgates then opened and Auckland put on 139 unanswered points, with John Kirwan scoring eight tries in a record shield margin. Auckland broke the century mark against North Otago again in 2008, winning 113–3.
Another shield is more hotly contested in this part of the country – the Hanan Shield. Presented in 1946 by A.E.S. Hanan, the Mayor of Timaru, the Hanan Shield is a challenge competition between the South Canterbury, Mid Canterbury and North Otago. North Otago has won fewer than a third of its 80-odd Hanan Shield matches. Its greatest win came in 1997, when a 30-year drought in the competition ended with a 20–17 victory over South Canterbury.
After several decades of little success, North Otago was by the late 1990s winning more games in a season than it used to win in a decade. A number of fine coaches were partly responsible for this resurgence in North Otago rugby – Greg Shipton, Peter Cook, Glenn Moore and Paddy Stewart in particular. In 2002, its 75th jubilee year, North Otago defeated Horowhenua-Kapiti to win the national third division title. Over the next three seasons North Otago made the semi-finals of the second division competition. With the reorganisation of the NPC in 2006 North Otago was placed in the Heartland Championship, where it has been one of the most consistent performers. The Heartland Championship is split into two tiers after pool play, with the top six teams playing for the Meads Cup and the bottom six for the Lochore Cup. North Otago won the Meads Cup in 2007, defeating Wanganui 25–8, and the Lochore Cup in 2009 with a 21–13 victory over West Coast.
During the era of long rugby tours, international sides often faced a Hanan Shield XV in a midweek match. In 1962 North Otago claimed its first individual international scalp by defeating Australia 14–13. In 1930 North Otago played the All Blacks in Oamaru as a warm-up match for the first test against Great Britain, losing 34–6.
Only two players have been selected for the All Blacks whilst playing their club rugby in North Otago. Between 1964 and 1966, outside back Ian (Spooky) Smith from the Old Boys club played nine tests against Australia, South Africa and the Lions. In 1971 Kurow’s Phil Gard was a surprise selection for the All Blacks for the fourth and final test against the British Lions. A no-frills midfield back, Gard first represented North Otago as an 18 year old in 1966. After playing for the South Island and in All Black trials, he played well for a Hanan Shield combination against the Lions in 1971. A combination of injuries and loss of form saw Gard brought in for the drawn test at Eden Park. He also played in six of the nine matches on the All Blacks’ 1972 internal tour. Phil Gard continued to play for North Otago until 1977, chalking up 85 appearances for the union. He served as a committee member and president of his Kurow club before his premature death from cancer, aged only 42.
P.R. White (1974–84) holds the record for appearances for North Otago with 94. P.M. (Paddy) Ford scored a record 429 points for the union between 1964 and 1974.
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