Shield challenge looks possible

By Peter White

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The Bay of Plenty Steamers may have a chance to define their season with a Ranfurly Shield challenge. Pictured is Steamers player Sam Beard (right). Photo / Ben Fraser
The Bay of Plenty Steamers may have a chance to define their season with a Ranfurly Shield challenge. Pictured is Steamers player Sam Beard (right). Photo / Ben Fraser

The dramatic last gasp victory by Counties Manukau over Hawke's Bay on Saturday was another unforgettable match in the remarkable history of the Ranfurly Shield.

Of the major unions, Counties Manukau was the only one never to have won the cherished Log o' Wood and the rugby gods had conspired against the South Aucklanders in a series of heartbreaking challenges, particularly in the 1980s.

They twice drew challenges and are regarded as unlucky to lose to Canterbury in 1982 and Auckland in 1985. The Canterbury result is still hard to take for diehard Counties Manukau fans as they were leading 15-12 with minutes remaining. Winger Robert Kururangi intercepted a pass and ran away to score, only to be ruled offside in a highly contentious call. The reliable Robbie Deans stepped up to kick the penalty to draw the match.

Saturday's win saw the Ranfurly Shield change hands for the third time in as many weeks in what has been the most captivating sports story for me in the last month.

Holders at the start of this season Waikato lost it to Otago, who last held it back in 1957, but the southern men lost it to Hawke's Bay a week later. The Magpies had waited 44 years to have the shield back but their reign last six days before Tana Umaga's boys came south and won in some style on Saturday.

Forget the America's Cup - this is real drama with good old-fashioned community loyalty on show in games played in front of sold out stadiums. The commitment level from the players is way beyond the rest of the ITM Cup, which has struggled to spark with poor crowds and ho hum rugby on show mostly.

The ramifications for the Bay of Plenty Steamers is that there is a chance they will get a challenge this season after all if Taranaki can keep this remarkable pattern of the new holders losing the shield at their first defence. Taranaki challenge in Pukekohe on Sunday and if successful they will defend it against the Steamers on Saturday September 14.

So for the first time since Bay of Plenty won and lost the shield for the only time in the union's history in 2004, another challenge is possible. But if that happens the Steamers will have to play with a lot more passion and belief in the jersey than they showed in the poor performance against Canterbury on Wednesday. Losing to Canterbury is no disgrace obviously but the manner in how the players fell off tackles is what concerned me.

Flashy first-fives like Canterbury's Bleyendaal would not have made multiple clean breaks without being touched against the Steamers of old, and the Canterbury halfback was allowed to break down the sideline far too easily. Ormond would have put him into the second row of the grandstand.

But with so many new players in this year's squad it was always going to take time to get the combinations right and the awareness of what is expected when you pull on the jersey. It does not get any easier this week with a trip to Wellington to play one of the two top teams on Thursday but the key to avoiding relegation are the three home games to come against Southland, Counties Manukau and Waikato.

Win two of those at least and the Steamers should stay up, which is important for rugby in the region.

- ROTORUA DAILY POST

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