Rugby: ORU eye 20,000 fans for challenge

By Anendra Singh

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Peter Breen of Otago (L) and coach Tony Brown.
Peter Breen of Otago (L) and coach Tony Brown.

The word is they are turning up in droves to see it, touch it and rejoice in the recent acquisition of the Ranfurly Shield in the Deep South.

Even the members of the 1957 team, who lifted the Log o' Wood after beating Wellington, are caught up in the nostalgia as the shield does it rounds from sponsors' dens to schools from Dunedin to Balclutha in the south, snaking its way through Ranfurly, Alexandra, Cromwell, Roxburgh, Wanaka, Queenstown and Lawrence.

The shield will find its pride of place in Dunedin again on Saturday night before Otago's first defence against the Hawke's Bay Magpies on Sunday in the 4.35pm kick-off at the covered Forsyth Barr Stadium during the round three ITM Cup rugby match.

Stories on the 1957 shield victory suggest that team were even bigger underdogs than the incumbents who wrested it off Waikato in Hamilton last Friday night with a 26-19 victory.

One account reveals the 1957 team manager, Harry Harley, a staunch Presbyterian, had asserted if Otago won that Saturday he was going to attend church with the "Doolans" on Sunday. He did although Otago lost it later that season to Taranaki (9-11), sparking a 56-year drought.

Otago assistant coach Phil Young yesterday said it certainly was a renaissance of rugby in the province.

"It meant a lot to the 1957 team. They didn't give them much chance to win, either.

"We've had a pretty good blowout. Schools all know about it. Even mums and dads are talking about it, wanting to look at the shield and touch it," Young said.

No doubt, for the Mike Coman-captained Magpies, the ideal scenario will be arriving at the Hawke's Bay Airport in Napier with throngs greeting them with adulation.

You somehow get the impression if the Magpies defy the odds to lift the shield then not winning the Championship this season will, perhaps, become more tolerable.

After all, some scribes have already predicted Otago are favourites to gain promotion to the Premiership so the Bay won't lack motivation.

Perhaps more daunting is the prospect of the visitors playing in front of what Otago Rugby Union (ORU) anticipates to be close to 20,000 parochial fans.

"That seems to be the gossip. We're definitely going into foreign territory," Young said.

In the financial doldrums last year, the ORU were in for a timely fillip when the New Zealand Rugby Union bailed them out for three months to avoid liquidation.

The ORU now sees the shield era as a cash cow so hanging on to the log is critical in milking that cow.

"It's all pretty surreal, really, so it's hard to put one governing feel on it. It's an award that's held in high regard in this part of the world," Young said.

Otago haven't forgotten the try-less affair Magpies won, 21-15, in their last clash in the ITM Cup at McLean Park, Napier.

If it comes down to the boot, again, Otago boast Hayden Parker who is the leading cup scorer on 43 points.

BOP Steamers captain Willie Ripia is next on 38 while Magpie Ihaia West comes in next, tied on 30 points with Ben Seymour (Northland) and Trent Renata (Waikato).

"It's a very good Hawke's Bay side ... so we're well aware of their stakes and their X-factor players, especially the strong pack," says the man who was coach Tony Brown's Otago Colts coach in 1994 when Canterbury retained the shield (22-20).

Oh, and for the record, this time there was no media-manufactured Party at Tony Brown's Place like in 1999 when the Highlanders played the Crusaders in the Super 12 final.

"Tony just had a quiet dinner party with his wife and their friends," he said of Brown, who he assists in the Otago ranks.

- Hawkes Bay Today

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