Waikato, with its fanatical cowbell-ringing fans and mascot – Mooloo the Jersey cow – reflects New Zealand rugby’s farming traditions more than most provinces. The Waikato Rugby Football Union was created in 1921, when the South Auckland Rugby Union formed in 1909 was split up. Waikato won the First Division of the National Provincial Championship in 1992 and the Air New Zealand Cup in 2006. By 2015 it had also won the Ranfurly Shield on 10 separate occasions and made the fourth highest number of successful defences. Waikato currently plays in the professional ITM Cup. Along with Counties Manukau, Thames Valley, Bay of Plenty, King Country and Taranaki, Waikato is part of the Chiefs Super Rugby franchise.
Waikato’s distinctive red, yellow and black jersey was first worn in 1928. A combination of the club jerseys of Hamilton (gold and black) and Old Boys (red and black), it replaced the previous colours of black, white and blue.
Between 1925 and 2000 the home of Waikato rugby was the prosaically named Rugby Park. The official history of Waikato rugby proudly records the provision of hot water for the showers in 1929, but it is for the many dramatic matches played there over the years that the venue is best remembered. One of the proudest moments came in 1956 in the Springboks’ tour opener. The locals’ 14–10 win remains one of the union’s greatest victories.
Twenty-five years later the same venue witnessed a very different spectacle involving the same teams. Rugby Park was full for the second game of the Springboks’ 1981 tour. In one of the most dramatic episodes of this controversial tour, police called off the match before it had even begun because of a pitch invasion by several hundred anti-tour protestors and fears that a light plane would be crashed into the stands.
Mooloo the cow
Waikato first won the Ranfurly Shield in 1951 thanks to two penalties by the great Don Clarke (‘the Boot’) – then just 17 – against North Auckland. The victors returned to Hamilton as heroes, the Waikato Times describing the scenes in Victoria Street as ‘reminiscent of V-J Day’. Local firm Booth & Chapman ran a competition to find a suitable team mascot. ‘Mooloo’ the Jersey cow was the winner. With the ringing of their distinctive cow-bells Mooloo supporters have created a fan-base unique in New Zealand rugby. In 1954 the ‘Mooloo express’ brought thousands of Waikato fans to Christchurch for a Ranfurly Shield challenge which ended in a 6-all draw. For decades a Jersey cow dressed in Waikato colours was present at home matches. Since 1999 a human has donned a bovine costume, enabling ‘Mooloo’ to join the fans on road trips.
Players of distinction
Several of the more than 60 All Blacks from the Waikato union since Jack Tuck became the first in 1929 have established themselves among the all-time greats of New Zealand rugby. The kicking of Don Clarke for both Waikato and New Zealand became the stuff of legends. The name Clarke looms large in Waikato rugby. Four of Don’s brothers – Ian (also an All Black), Doug, Brian and Graeme – played for Waikato. In 1961 against Thames Valley and in 1962 against Auckland all the Clarke brothers played together as one-third of the team. Matthew Cooper with 1604 points between 1990 and 1999 is the union’s record point-scorer. Ian Foster played a record 148 games for Waikato between 1985 and 1998.
When the National Provincial Championship was created in 1976, Waikato was placed in the second division – a bitter pill to swallow for many Mooloo fans. In 1980 the chance for redemption came when the team travelled to Eden Park to take on Auckland for the Ranfurly Shield. Many provincial teams saw the opportunity to knock off the country’s largest and most successful union as one of the great challenges in a career. The chance of an upset shield victory added even more spice to such occasions. The Waikato coach that September day, George Simpkin, reckoned that no motivational speech from him was required – ‘the mere act of playing an Auckland side was sufficient’.
Auckland were six games into yet another shield tenure and with their opponents still in the second division were favourites for the match. Yet Auckland coach Bryan Craies was wary. He believed that this game would be the toughest of the season, as Waikato always lifted itself for games against Auckland. He was to be proven right.
After playing with the wind, Waikato turned around at half-time with only a narrow 3–0 lead. Many felt that Auckland had weathered the challenge – with the wind behind them in the second half they would do enough to retain the shield. But no points came and slowly panic set in. The holders struggled to get any decent ball out to their backs and with 20 minutes left the Auckland centre Tim Twigden snapped. He threw an infield pass which was intercepted by his Waikato counterpart Arthur Stone, who had a clear run to the line. Waikato conceded a late penalty but held on for a famous 7–3 win.
Waikato rounded off a perfect season with promotion to the first division. They won this competition in 1992 and in 2006 became the first holders of the Air New Zealand Cup which replaced it.
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