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Rugby: Shield once survived knockout challenge

Sherwin Stowers and fans at the Counties Manukau victory parade. Photo / Getty Images
Sherwin Stowers and fans at the Counties Manukau victory parade. Photo / Getty Images

Eighteen years ago, New Zealanders almost lost the Ranfurly Shield in its current format.

The New Zealand Rugby Union marketing department toyed with switching to an FA Cup format. The theory via The Boston Report, a document commissioned to explore how to turn rugby professional.

Had it been pursued, we would have seen nothing like what has transpired the past three weeks through Waikato, Otago, Hawke's Bay and Counties Manukau.

There'd only be one victory parade per season for starters.

The opportunity to acquaint rugby's heartland with the Log o' Wood on a regular basis would have disappeared. In hindsight, it was a knee-jerk reaction to Auckland's 61 defences from 1985-93, a feat unlikely to be repeated.

A pithy anecdote from author Lindsay Knight's The Shield offers an insight into the trophy's status.

Before the 1995 National Provincial Championship, theories about an 'FA Cup'-type set-up started to swirl. By coincidence the NZRU convened provincial stalwarts Errol Brain, Kieran Crowley and Leicester Rutledge (of Counties, Taranaki and Southland respectively) for a panel discussion. The topic turned to the Shield. Each stated unequivocally they wanted the same format. The clincher for keeping the status quo was that none of them had won it. Hence we have been spared any marketing ambushes and, tellingly, the Shield is yet to be adorned with a sponsorship prefix like most competitions and stadia since.

There are myriad moments, some real and some apocryphal, which cement the Shield as part of the public consciousness. The image of Wayne Smith's bomb bouncing inside the deadball line and getting whacked by an Auckland hand into an encroaching crowd to secure victory over Canterbury at Lancaster Park in 1985 is prominent. Arthur Stone's intercept try to sew up Waikato's 1980 challenge against Auckland is another. Then there are mysteries like what the Marlborough team might have done to Alex Wyllie's Omihi letterbox on the return bus trip from Canterbury in 1973.

So-called 'Shield Fever' tends to grip the union in possession. The idea of inculcating our youngsters (and oldsters) to fawn over a 111-year-old tear-dropped shaped piece of oak could be construed as odd. However, it is not so much the tactile object which is admired. It is more the values associated with earning it - toil, discipline, co-operation. Naturally, human nature being what it is, there's the odd dodgy story associated and mean-spiritedness sometimes masquerades as parochialism but the trophy does more good than harm for a community. No trophy transcends Kiwi sporting culture more, regardless of the gaggle of fair-weather America's Cup fans re-emerging.

Take a snapshot of this week. Manurewa Intermediate School were on a train to town. A mob of 12-year-old boys passed a footy about the carriage in good cheer. The Shield was a trending topic in their conversation alongside Francis Saili, the initials 'SBW' and the assessment as to their chances of wooing Beyonce as a future wife.

Further south, the Shield was plonked in the middle of the Papakura Central School hall and treated with the reverence of the Mona Lisa. Pupils were ushered up for photos; teachers and the odd parent joined them. The school was the primary alma mater of Baden Kerr, according to a proud banner in the auditorium.

After establishing the trophy's age (111 years after guesses of 67, 68 and 128) the question 'what is it also known as?' was posed by the Shield custodians and Counties rugby development officers. "The logga wood," boomed Sophie, like a gnarled veteran. "How many times has Counties won it?"

"Once," the chorus replied.

At Counties Manukau HQ in Pukekohe, a queue had formed by 9am on Tuesday hunting tickets. The keenest fans had been floating around at 7.30am. These are halcyon days for a union on the verge of getting dumped from the top-flight a few years back.

If Taranaki win today, it will be the first time since 1950 the Shield has been held by five unions in a season. It won't dilute the passion.

- NZ Herald

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