For 125 years Taranaki rugby has maintained the rugby traditions associated with New Zealand’s rural hinterland. Tough, uncompromising forwards complemented by accurate kickers saw the ‘Naki set the benchmark for provincial rugby during its heyday in the late 1950s and mid-1960s, when two tenures of the Ranfurly Shield yielded 28 successful defences.
Though the Taranaki Rugby Football Union was not officially established until 1889, a team chosen from the clubs then in existence played as Egmont in 1885. Taranaki currently plays in the ITM Cup, the country’s top-level professional provincial competition. Along with East Coast, Poverty Bay, Hawke’s Bay, Wairarapa-Bush, Wanganui, Manawatu, Horowhenua-Kapiti and Wellington, Taranaki is part of the Hurricanes Super Rugby franchise.
Following a brief dalliance with a ‘chocolate coloured’ jersey, Taranaki donned amber and black in 1892. In these famous colours the ‘Naki has won the Ranfurly Shield on five occasions. It has also won seven second division titles in the National Provincial Championship, more than any other team.
Taranaki’s first Ranfurly Shield victory came in 1913 when Auckland was defeated 14–11. Six successful defences followed before a 12–6 loss to Wellington in September 1914. Taranaki did not taste shield success again until 1957. Shield holders Wellington were defeated in a ‘friendly’ match early in the season and confidence was high with a shield challenge scheduled for later in the season. Hopes appeared dashed when Otago defeated Wellington. Taranaki lodged a special challenge which Otago accepted. The match was set down for 28 September, the last Saturday of the season. It clashed with Taranaki’s scheduled fixture with King Country, who graciously gave way. Otago would regret its decison as Taranaki won 11–9.
During this 13-match tenure Taranaki showed the value and importance of the shield to the provincial unions. With the region gripped by ‘shield fever’, title defences were preceded by carnival-type build-ups and watched by near-capacity crowds. The popularity of the game in the province soared. In 1959 a record 35,000 spectators packed into New Plymouth’s Rugby Park to see the British Isles prevail 15–3. Two years later 36,000 people were on hand to watch France defeat the locals 11–9.
In 1963 Taranaki regained the Ranfurly Shield by ending Wellington’s week-long tenure with a comfortable 17–3 win at Athletic Park. Taranaki’s third tenure would be its greatest. But it was almost over before it began. The first challenge came from unfancied Wanganui who were making their second challenge of the season, having lost earlier to Auckland 41–18. Colin Pierce had kicked Wanganui to a 12–11 lead. After Taranaki captain Ross Brown was astray with a late drop-kick, Pierce forced the ball for a restart from the 25-yard line. Rather than use up some precious time, he rushed to the 25 and kicked towards the touchline. What happened next is still debated. Pierce’s kick disappeared into a throng of Wanganui fans who were poised to run onto the field to celebrate a first-ever shield win. The referee, John Pring, eventually decided that the ball had gone out on the full and awarded Taranaki a scrum on the Wanganui 25-yard line. From the next play Kerry Hurley scored in the corner to give Taranaki a somewhat fortuitous 14–12 victory.
Wanganui suffered further heartbreak in 1964, when Pierce missed a sideline conversion on full time in a 15-all draw. Taranaki lost 16–11 to Auckland in their last defence in 1965 and would not taste shield success again until 1996, when they edged Auckland 42–39. This tenure was a brief one. North Harbour was repelled 13–11 in a tight contest before Taranaki was overpowered 40–19 by Waikato. In August 2011 Taranaki edged Southland 15-12 in Invercargill to begin a fifth tenure of the shield.
More than 70 Taranaki players have represented New Zealand since 1893, when Alfred Bayly, Alan Good and James Lambie became the region’s first national representatives. The famous Originals team of 1905 contained six players from the region. Andrew Hore, with 47 caps since his debut in 2002, has played more tests for New Zealand than any other Taranaki player. Players of his generation play many more tests in a season than their counterparts did in days gone by.
Flanker Graham Mourie, perhaps Taranaki’s finest All Black, was one of the first picked in All Black teams between 1976 and 1982 yet played only 21 tests. He captained the All Blacks in 57 of the 61 matches he played for his country. He is one of four New Plymouth Boys’ High School old boys to have captained the All Blacks (Boys’ High has produced more than 20 All Blacks). Recognised for his skills as a ‘fast and constructive flanker’, he was also admired by many for his intelligent and inspiring captaincy. Others, including many outside rugby circles, also respected his stance on the controversial 1981 Springbok tour of New Zealand. Mourie opposed the tour and made himself unavailable for All Black selection. He returned to lead the All Blacks in Romania and France at the end of 1981 before finishing his international career in 1982 by captaining New Zealand in a successful campaign to win back the Bledisloe Cup from Australia.
Dave Loveridge, a team-mate of Mourie, became a household name and possessed ‘every aspect of the halfback’s art, passing accurately, kicking effectively and running with judgement’. Ian Eliason played a staggering 222 first-class games for Taranaki between 1964 and 1981, as well as 19 games for the All Blacks. This gave him a share of the New Zealand record for the most matches for a union (Taranaki credit him with 223 games by counting a non-first-class game). Another player from the south Taranaki club of Kaponga to shine for both Taranaki and New Zealand was Kieran Crowley, who with 1723 career points remains the province’s record points scorer. Prop Mark (‘Bull’) Allen achieved iconic status in the mid-1990s with his trademark shaved head and storming runs. In his heyday New Plymouth’s Rugby Park was known as the ‘Bull-ring’ in his honour.
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