Because travel was difficult, many early interprovincial matches in New Zealand were annual fixtures between neighbours. Larger unions with greater resources sometimes went on tour. In 1904 the first Ranfurly Shield match was played.
The Ranfurly Shield
The Ranfurly Shield was donated by the Earl of Ranfurly, the governor of New Zealand (1897–1904). The shield had been designed as a trophy for football (not rugby) and had to be modified to depict a rugby game. The shield changes hands when the holder is successfully challenged. It was first awarded to Auckland, which had the best results in the 1903 season. In the first challenge on 6 August 1904, Wellington defeated Auckland 6–3 to lift what has become known colloquially as the Log o’ Wood.
Until the introduction of the National Provincial Championship in 1976, the Ranfurly Shield was the only trophy for which all provincial unions were eligible. Although it is now contested in tandem with the league-based championship, many still view the shield as the most prestigious trophy in New Zealand domestic rugby. Over the years many small communities and provinces have succumbed to ‘shield fever’ in the build-up to Ranfurly Shield challenges. Holding the shield became an important symbol of provincial pride. Many of the so-called minnows of New Zealand rugby have enjoyed success in the past. In the professional era the gap between the Davids and Goliaths of New Zealand rugby has widened, and an upset on the scale of Marlborough's famous 1973 triumph over Canterbury will probably never occur again. However, since Southland's 2009 victory over Canterbury, the shield has mostly been held by provinces other than the five which host Super 15 franchises.
The National Provincial Championship (NPC)
In 1976 a National Provincial Championship was established. The provincial unions were divided into two divisions, the first consisting of 11 teams – seven from the North Island and four from the South. Division Two was divided between the two islands. Within each competition, the teams played all the others once during the season. The bottom-placed Division One team from the South Island played the winner of the southern Division Two in a promotion–relegation match. The lowest-placed North Island team in the top division was automatically relegated and replaced by the winner of the northern Division Two. In 1985 a united Division Two and a Division Three were created. The top teams in Divisions Two and Three were automatically promoted and the bottom teams in Divisions One and Two were relegated. From 1992 the champion in each division was determined after semi-finals and a final following the round-robin matches.
Since 2006, 14 provincial teams have competed in a professional competition that is now known as the ITM Cup. In 2011, to avoid a clash with the Rugby World Cup, the ITM Cup was split into seven-team Premiership and Championship tiers, with automatic promotion-relegation between the two. In 2015 all 14 teams played 10 round-robin matches, including four against provinces in the other tier, followed by semi-finals and finals within each tier. This hybrid format has not found universal favour. Since 2006 the other 12 unions have played in the semi-professional Heartland Championship, with the top four vying for the Meads Cup and the next four contesting the Lochore Cup. There is no provision for promotion–relegation between the ITM Cup and the Heartland Championship.
Other provincial trophies
Nearly 40 interprovincial trophies are contested in New Zealand rugby.
One of the oldest is the Rundle Cup, the symbol of rugby supremacy on the west coast of the South Island. West Coast and Buller competed for the Molloy Cup from 1896 until 1911, when it was replaced by the Rundle Cup. Another significant trophy in the upper South Island is the Seddon Shield, a challenge trophy for representative teams from Buller, Nelson Bays, Marlborough and West Coast. First contested in 1906, it honours the former premier and prominent Coaster, Richard John Seddon.
The Hanan Shield, presented in 1946 by A.E.S. Hanan, the mayor of Timaru, is competed for annually by South Canterbury, Mid Canterbury and North Otago.