Waikato, with its fanatical cowbell-ringing fans and mascot – Mooloo the jersey cow – reflects New Zealand rugby’s farming traditions more than most. The Waikato Rugby Football Union was created in 1921, when the South Auckland Rugby Union formed in 1909 was split up. Waikato has won the top division of New Zealand’s National Provincial Championship twice. It has also won the Ranfurly Shield on eight separate occasions and has the third highest number of successful defences. Waikato currently plays in the ITM Cup, the country’s top-level professional provincial competition. Along with Bay of Plenty, King Country, Thames Valley and Counties Manukau, Waikato is part of the Chiefs Super Rugby franchise.
Waikato’s famous and 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 black, white, blue and black colours.
Between 1925 and 2000 the home of Waikato rugby was the prosaically named Rugby Park. The official history of Waikato rugby proudly notes the introduction of hot water to the showers at Rugby Park 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 mighty Springboks’ tour opener. The locals’ 14–10 win is still considered to be one of the union’s greatest victories.
Twenty-five years later the same venue witnessed a very different spectacle involving the same opposition. 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 kicked off. A pitch invasion by several hundred anti-tour protestors and the risk of a light plane being crashed into the stands had created a situation that threatened to get out of control.
Waikato’s first success in the Ranfurly Shield came in 1951, when two penalties by the great Don Clarke (‘the Boot’) gave Waikato a 6–3 win over North Auckland. Waikato fans and players embraced the shield with relish. 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 unique fan-base 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. From 1999 a human has dressed in a cow’s costume, meaning that ‘Mooloo’ can join the fans on road trips.
Of the more than 60 All Blacks from the Waikato union since Jack Tuck became the first in 1929, a number 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 (who joined his brother Don as an All Black), Doug, Brian and Graeme – all played for Waikato. In 1961 against Thames Valley and in 1962 against Auckland all five Clarke brothers appeared together in the same team. Matthew Cooper with 1604 points is the union’s record point-scorer, while Ian Foster with 148 games has played more games for Waikato than any other player.
When the National Provincial Championship was created in 1976 Waikato found itself in the second division. This was a bitter pill to swallow for many Mooloo fans given their proud heritage. 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 bonus of an upset shield victory added even more spice to such occasions. The Waikato coach that September day, George Simpkin, admitted as much when he said that no motivational speech was required – ‘the mere act of playing an Auckland side was sufficient for that’.
Auckland were six games into yet another shield tenure and with their opponents 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 and securing a fair amount of ball and territory, Waikato turned around at half-time with 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 points didn’t come and a degree of 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. Despite conceding a late penalty Waikato held on for a famous 7–3 win.
Waikato rounded off a perfect season with promotion to the first division.
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