David Leggat on sport

David Leggat is a Herald sport writer

David Leggat: Shield hurt runs deep in Counties

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Twenty-three challenges and two draws the closest Counties Manukau have got.

Counties centre Bruce Robertson made 100 All Black appearances. Photo / NZ Herald Archive
Counties centre Bruce Robertson made 100 All Black appearances. Photo / NZ Herald Archive

Counties Manukau and the Ranfurly Shield. There's a certain symmetry to it, even though no player from the province has ever clutched the log in triumph; never cuddled up at night beside it; never paraded it through the region for wide-eyed children to gaze at in awe.

If you want to find a bittersweet story in New Zealand provincial rugby, you'll go a distance to find a better example.

The Counties union was formed in 1955. Since then, and with the Manukau part attached in 1996 - and to far from wholehearted support - they've gone to that particular well 23 times, lost 21 times and managed two draws.

They even had two cracks last year, losing first to Southland 13-9 in Invercargill, then 39-21 to Canterbury, who had lifted the shield off the southerners in the interim.

But the shield hurt runs deep down Bombay way.

Tonight there's another opportunity to put right what many feel is one of the injustices of domestic rugby when Counties head south to play Southland, who themselves are celebrating another glorious day after toppling Canterbury for the second time in just over two years last weekend.

You wonder as you glance down the list of Counties' shield challenges how, just once, the famous chunk of wood hasn't been won.

Look at the cast of players. They've not been short of quality.

Go way back to All Blacks Pat Walsh and Stan "Tiny" Hill - noted Cantabrian hard man who spent time in the army at Papakura - in the early years.

Think of the sublime centre Bruce Robertson, he of 100 All Black appearances; Andy Dalton, All Black captain; Alan Dawson, the outstanding flanker for whom the sobriquet "unluckiest bloke never to play a test" could have been invented; and more latterly Joeli Vidiri and Jonah Lomu, giant, free-scoring wings, Errol Brain and Jim Coe, proud men of the province, and a cast of top talent down the decades.

How have they not managed even once, even for a solitary defence, to win a challenge?

Dalton was involved in seven challenges, lost five and drew the two odd ones out, in consecutive years.

Running an eye down the list of scores from those games tells how close Counties have so often come.

That tone was set in the first challenge, in 1958, an 11-5 loss to Taranaki.

Then followed defeats by 11, five, nine and one point to Auckland from 1960-75.

Now consider this block of four games: 15-10 against Manawatu in 1977; 11-9 against Auckland in 1979; 20-20 against Waikato and 15-15 against Canterbury in 1981 and 1982. Call that little stretch heartbreak highway.

Manawatu's All Black prop Kent Lambert had been sent off in Palmerston North, but the holders grew an extra leg and when Bob Lendrum and Robert Kururangi made a hash of a clearance, the ball flew into first five-eighth Jim Carroll's arms for the match-winning try.

A bumper 50,000 turned up at Eden Park in 1979 in a game which pitted the shield-holders against the NPC champions, Counties already having completed that task.

Despite leading 9-0 with 15 minutes left, Counties players later admitted they never really felt they had matters in hand.

Tries by Tim Twigden and Colin Farrell before Richard Dunn's penalty six minutes from the end won it.

In Hamilton, the teams split six tries in a thriller; at Lancaster Park it boiled down to a Robbie Deans shot at goal from wide out near halfway in the final moments.

In front of a packed terrace, and in their first defence, Deans, the Canterbury hero, nailed it.

Counties' despair was near complete.

Since then, there has been a 12-9 loss to Auckland in 1985 in their second defence of what would become a monumental 61-game, eight-year tenure - and when a disallowed try by No 8 Dave Trombik might have nipped that record run in the bud.

Not to forget a five-point defeat against Auckland in Pukekohe in 1992 and that Southland loss last year.

All so close. That's been Counties' story. It will end, one day.

- NZ Herald

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