Australian miners introduced Victorian Rules to Otago, and there was a brief flirtation with Association Football’s ‘dribbling game’ before Otago men enthusiastically grasped rugby. In 1881 a union of 11 clubs stretching from Oamaru to Invercargill was established. Southland broke away in 1887, beginning one of New Zealand’s strongest inter-provincial rugby rivalries. These two unions have played each other more often than any other New Zealand provincial teams. Otago’s 2010 Ranfurly Shield challenge against Southland was the 232nd match between the two southern unions. While Southland has had the better of recent fixtures, Otago holds a commanding overall lead with 142 victories to Southland’s 80. Ten games have been drawn.
Between 1935 and 1950 Otago and Southland had a stranglehold on the Ranfurly Shield, trading possession of the coveted Log o’ Wood. Sixty years would pass before the two southern unions met again in the Ranfurly Shield. In August 2010 Southland repelled Otago 16–12 in a typically hard-fought match between the old rivals.
With its own representative on the Rugby Football Union in England, the Otago Union spurned the nationwide efforts in 1892 to form a New Zealand Rugby Football Union. But frustration at the Home unions’ indifference to the colonial game and its inability to play matches against unions affiliated with the national body led Otago to join the NZRFU in 1895.
More than 150 players have worn both the blue and gold of Otago and the black jersey of New Zealand. As a university town, Dunedin has attracted players from all over the country. The city’s University Club has produced more All Blacks than any other club in the country. Dunedin’s ‘scarfies’ (university students), whether as players or fans, have helped spread support for Otago beyond its own borders in a way that is unique in New Zealand.
Otago plays in the top-flight national inter-provincial rugby competition, the ITM Cup. Along with North Otago and Southland, Otago is part of the Highlanders Super Rugby franchise.
R.J. Knight played a record 170 games for Otago between 1981 and 1992. His teammate Greg Cooper scored a record 1520 points for the union between 1984 and 1996, as well as 63 points for the All Blacks in seven tests.
Dunedin’s Carisbrook ground looms large in the history of Otago rugby. In 2011 the curtain will come down on 'The Brook' as a venue for test and first-class rugby in Dunedin. A new state-of-the-art roofed stadium in the north of the city will open in time for the 2011 Rugby World Cup. Nicknamed ‘The House of Pain’ by those marketing Otago rugby in the professional era Carisbrook was a tough venue for visiting teams. Otago players apparently gave it the nickname because of how much they suffered at practices, but it was soon used to intimidate visiting sides. In over a century of test rugby at the venue it also became a tough venue for visiting teams. Prior to the final All Blacks game there in July 2011 the All Blacks had lost only five of their 37 tests at Carisbrook.
Otago has inflicted its fair share of pain on visiting teams, especially those from the British Isles. The Anglo-Welsh (the forerunner of the British Lions) were defeated 9–6 in 1908, and their successors were defeated in 1950, 1959, 1966 and 1993. England lost in 1963, Australia in 1972 and 1978, and the Springboks in 1994.
The antics of the ‘scarfies’ on the ground’s terraces did much to give Carisbrook its unique atmosphere. Former Welsh captain Eddie Butler had mixed emotions when he heard of its imminent demise. ‘There is nothing the outside world should like to see more than its closure … but hell, we need these special places, where opponents tread with trepidation’.
Until a new stand was built in 1998, the ‘Scotsman’s Grandstand’ – a railway embankment above the ground – offered fans a free view of the ground. Passing trains stopped or slowed to a crawl to give passengers a chance to watch the action.
The organiser of the first New Zealand team to tour overseas in 1884 was Dunedin’s Samuel Sleigh.
‘Young Vic’ Cavanagh had an ability to get the most out of his teams. One story has it that in the 1947 shield defence against Auckland, Otago finding itself down 12–3 at halftime was given the silent treatment by the coach. When the referee blew his whistle to signal that the players should return to the field, he finally broke his silence: ‘Come on girls, out you go again’. Otago won the match 18–12.
Many believe that Cavanagh should have coached the 1949 All Black team in South Africa, especially as this included 11 Otago players. Others thought he was only interested in ‘his’ players. The 1949 captain and later Auckland and All Black coach Fred Allen was not among the latter. The All Blacks lost the series 4–0 and Cavanagh remains perhaps the best coach never to have coached the All Blacks.
The iconic 1905 All Blacks – the ‘Originals’ – were coached by another Otago man, Jimmy Duncan. Otago-born Tom Ellison was captain of the first team selected by the NZRFU in 1893 (17 Otago men have followed him in this role). It was also Ellison who suggested that the national side wear a plain black jersey with a silver fern.
The forward-orientated ‘Southern style’ associated with ‘Old’ and ‘Young’ Vic Cavanagh saw Otago become a force in New Zealand rugby. Rucking became a defining feature of New Zealand rugby largely through their influence. The Otago rucking game was honed in the 1950s by Charlie Saxton, who emphasised the three P’s: ‘Position, Possession and Pace’. Subsequent Otago coaches kept up this approach. Playing very much in the Cavanagh style, Otago were one of the most consistent teams of the 1990s, winning two national championships and finishing runners-up three times.
Otago’s golden shield era on either side of the Second World War consisted of three separate tenures. Having defeated Canterbury in the last challenge of 1935, the blue and golds defended the shield eight times in 1936 before losing to Southland in the only shield game of 1937. Revenge was gained in the first challenge of 1938, but a five-match streak was halted by Southland in September. Following another victory over Southland in 1947, Otago held the shield for a union record of 18 defences. After losing the shield to Canterbury in 1950, Otago did not regain it until 1957. This time there was only one successful defence, and Otago has never held the shield since. In 2010 the shield rivalry with Southland was reignited following Southland's victory over Canterbury the previous season. Otago however suffered yet more shield heartbreak going down 16-12 to their fierce rivals. There have been some other close calls, the most talked about being the 1994 challenge against Canterbury. Otago was leading 20–19 with time almost up when captain David Latta was penalised near his own line by referee Colin Hawke. Andrew Mehrtens kicked the penalty and Canterbury won 22–20. Lightening struck twice for Otago fans the following year when at Eden Park Hawke awarded Auckland a debatable penalty try that secured the home side a 23–19 victory in the NPC final.
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