Northland has over the years established a reputation for playing fast, attractive rugby. Club rugby was first played in Northland in the late 1880s but the North Auckland Rugby Union was not established until 1920. In 1994, North Auckland changed its name to the Northland Rugby Football Union.
One of the first games played by the new North Auckland Union ended in a narrow 8–6 loss to Auckland in July 1922. This marked the beginning of an intense rivalry with the boys from ‘the big smoke’ which has played a major part in the history of Northland rugby. Ranfurly Shield victories over their city cousins in 1960 and 1971 were particularly sweet. Northland currently plays in the ITM Cup, the country’s top-level professional provincial competition. Northland is known as the taniwha, a reference to the mascot adopted in the professional era. Along with Auckland and North Harbour, Northland is part of the Blues Super Rugby franchise.
New Zealand has had a national inter-provincial championship since 1976. For most unions, though, the Ranfurly Shield remains the pinnacle of achievement. Northland (as North Auckland) has won the Ranfurly Shield on four occasions: 1950, when they defeated South Canterbury; 1960 and 1971, when they defeated Auckland; and 1978 when they defeated Manawatu.
In the 1971 challenge North Auckland prevailed 17–12 in a pulsating match played in front of 47,000 fans at Eden Park, Auckland. Crowds of this size – now seen only at test matches – were commonplace for big shield matches of this era. In the rematch the following season a staggering 40,000 fans squeezed into Whangarei’s Okara Park. With the city’s population only 34,000, this was clear evidence of the significance of both the shield and the rivalry with Auckland. ‘Shield fever’ well and truly gripped Northland in the buildup to the match. Though they lost 15–16, the game was one of Northland’s finest rugby moments.
The reputation of Northland rugby took a knock following its controversial victory over Manawatu in 1978. After what was considered to be an excessive amount of stoppage time, North Auckland kicked the winning penalty. What followed was described by rugby writer Lindsay Knight as ‘an unpardonable breach of the spirit in which it was intended the shield would be played’. North Auckland refused to put the shield on the line for its final home matches of the season against Southland and Otago. No rules were broken but there was outrage in rugby circles. Many were relieved when – almost predictably – Auckland defeated North Auckland 9–3 the following season.
In 1921 Charlie Fletcher became the first of Northland’s 30 All Blacks. A region with a large Maori population, Northland has also produced many players who have represented the New Zealand Maori team with distinction.
At Eden Park in 1956, the uncompromising North Auckland loose forward Peter Jones gained a special place in the folklore of New Zealand rugby by scoring a try in the series-clinching fourth test against South Africa (the All Blacks’ first series win over the Springboks). His 30-m run to the try-line from broken play following a lineout is one of the most famous ever scored by an All Black forward. But it is his live post-match radio interview for which Jones is perhaps best remembered: ‘Ladies and gentlemen, I hope I never have to play another game like that in my life. I’m absolutely buggered’. These were clearly more genteel times. The New Zealand Herald refused to print Jones’s comments and the recording spent the next 30 years buried in the radio archives.
J.B. (Johnny) Smith, ‘Doc’ Manahi Paewai and Ian Jones (Northland’s most capped All Black with 79 test caps) all gained local and national fame, but one surname stands out most in Northland rugby: Going. Sid, Ken and Brian Going provided the core of an exciting Northland backline for the best part of a decade from the mid-1960s. All three played together for New Zealand Maori, and Sid and Ken made the step up to the All Blacks. ‘Super Sid’ played 86 times for the All Blacks between 1967 and 1977. The brothers became famous for the ‘blindside triple-scissors movement’ – known as ‘Going, Going, gone’ – which they had perfected on the back lawn of the family home. A second generation of Goings – Milton, Jared, Charles and Darrell – followed in their fathers’ footsteps, wearing the Cambridge blue of Northland with distinction.
Warren Johnston with 1671 points between 1986 and 1997 is Northland's record points scorer. Joe Morgan played a record 165 matches for the union between 1967 and 1981.
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