It was just south of Te Kuiti when the inescapable truth hit: this was a giant waste of time.

This dark thought threatened to ruin the day until, like a miracle, two people appeared on the roadside just outside of Waitara, dragging a huge crucifix (with a wheel affixed to the bottom, just like in Roman times).

Everything started to make sense again. Travelling halfway down the North Island on a logging-truck Wednesday to watch a third-tier game of semi-professional rugby involving players I know very-little-to-nothing about wasn't just the right thing to do, it was the only thing to do.

This is Taranaki's sixth Ranfurly Shield era, started in astonishing fashion by coming back from 7-31 down to beat Canterbury 55-43. Through circumstances largely beyond my control - I wasn't born in time for the first three eras and wasn't living in the province for the latter three - I had yet to attend a Shield defence.

Advertisement

It was time to change that.

There were no "golden years" when I was young enough and local enough to kick around what was then known as Rugby Park. There were excellent individual players, like Graham Mourie and Dave Loveridge, but Taranaki were a mainly second division team clogged up by burly farmer types from places like Inglewood and Eltham. My memory tells me that we were the last team to cling on to the belief that 10-man rugby was the only kind of rugby and the middle of the field was something best avoided.

There are wonderful photos of a mass of humanity waiting for the victorious teams of 1957 and '63 to arrive at the New Plymouth Aerodrome after winning the Shield, but by the 1980s the Log o' Wood was something other teams, mainly Auckland, had.

I loved New Plymouth back then but hand on heart, it was an ordinary place, a bit crappy even. There was one Chinese restaurant to tease your palate, a few uninviting booze barns and an undercurrent of racism that manifested itself most spectacularly during the debate as to whether the name of the maunga should be returned to Taranaki rather than Captain Cook's nod to the Earl of Egmont, a man who never set foot in the province. The foreshore was treated as a threat, not an opportunity.

Things have changed. It is a vibrant city with a burgeoning arts and cultural scene. It has classy bars and cafes, the black-sand (proper sand) coastline has been rejuvenated with a spectacular walkway, Pukekura Park remains a jewel and even if the mountain is wont to hide away behind a curtain of cloud for days at a time, it is always welcomed back like an old friend.

It's still a bit inward looking, but it's cool. The kind of place you're proud to call your hometown, even if you haven't lived there for more than 20 years.

And rugby still matters here. People are still willing to drop $150 on a replica jumper even though amber-and-black hoops isn't the most versatile scheme.

It's the sort of place where even if the mayor didn't feel a sense of duty, he'd still go along to the match. It's the sort of place where a kindly woman will hand you two spare tickets to the game and not ask for a penny in return. It's the sort of place, where for a small premium, you can buy craft beer at the ground!

New Plymouth Mayor Neil Holdom (left) with Dylan Cleaver.
New Plymouth Mayor Neil Holdom (left) with Dylan Cleaver.

And it's the sort of place where they now play a dynamic, cosmopolitan brand of footy to match the region's aspirations.

Taranaki are really good to watch. Seriously good. They scored seven tries to Manawatu's three and blew a few more. Fijian flyers Waisake Naholo and Seta Tamanivalu were too good for this level and Kylem O'Donnell notched a candidate for try of the year, performing some sideline contortions to ground the ball before it went dead.

Then, in a flash, it was over. The Shield will be locked away at Taranaki Rugby HQ for the summer. There's also a chance there will be more silverware as the Naki chase a second NPC title in four years.

If they do, they'll do it without me. They'll be okay, I think. I've played my part.

On the trip down I had made the mistake of listening to the final four episodes of S-Town back-to-back. It's a remarkable, trippy podcast that dives deep into the heart of redneck America.

The chief protagonist is a manic-depressive horologist, or clockmaker, named John B. McLemore. He calculated that the average "Life of an Industrialised Man in an Industrialised Nation" might contain just 4500 "beneficial hours".

Just south of Te Kuiti, where Pinetree resides in bronzed eternity, I quantified that I would spend the best part of 10 hours in a filthy Toyota Yaris to watch 80 minutes of rugby that few people outside of an isolated province of a little more than 100,000 people care about.

The Pinetree statue.
The Pinetree statue.

By any sensible measurement, that is not a beneficial use of time.

Then again, we all have our crosses to bear.