Country rugby celebrated another big moment in Hawke's Bay when Central Hawke's Bay successfully defended sub-unions' prize the Bebbington Shield with a 27-20 win over Dannevirke at Tikokino on Saturday.
But the only match for the century-old trophy this year was hardly the stroll of its next three most recent matches defending the Bebbington Shield, when CHB beat Dannevirke 45-19 last year, Northern Whanganui 76-13 in 2018, and Rangitikei 65-10 in 2014.
With players from all four sub-union clubs which played senior rugby in Hawke's Bay this year, but a solid representation from Waipukurau-based Premier club Central, CHB could have been forgiven for some confidence of a significant win again on Saturday, and completing a double for the day after CHB beat Dannevirke 44-0 in the Colts curtainraiser.
The Dannevirke senior side had just a sprinkling of players with premier club rugby experience, and was chosen from just two clubs – Hawke's Bay Division 1 beaten finalist Aotea and Manawatu Division 2 champion Dannevirke Sports.
But coaches Steve Baker (CHB) and Nigel Castles (Dannevirke), each of whom had played in past matches, rated it a "good arm-wrestle" – a five tries to four affair which after an early CHB break-away was anyone's at 22-20 to CHB when the visitors scored their fourth unconverted try, entering the last 20 minutes.
In front of about 400 people at a game hosted by the Onga-Tiko club, which fields just a Colts side, it was a good way to make a point about both country rugby and the once big tradition of sub-union matches in Hawke's Bay, although the Shield's legacy is with just the southern extremity of the Hawke's Bay union, the old Bush union, and teams in the Manawatu and Whanganui competitions.
CHB looked set to dominate when opening with tries, to fullback and Waipawa Country United player Josh Wardle, and Otane midfielders Daz Pere and Etene Gaucake, which with Pere converting his own from near the posts, to make it 17-0 after just 25 minutes.
Dannevirke struck back with tries to fullback and former Hawke's Bay Magpie Waka Petera and big prop Gene Ropoama to close the gap to 17-10 at halftime.
Central club hooker Max Fryatt scored early in the second half, Dannevirke blasted back with tries to No 8 Jacob Stephenson and centre Trent Conway, before CHB got the ball out left for wing Mark Donald to wrap-up the scoring with a try in the corner about five minutes from the end.
CHB was still able to muster a strong side, despite the absence of up to 10 of the area's top players who have commitments to the Hawke's Bay Magpies and other upper levels of the game.
The match was a triumph for those trying to restore sub-union rugby and the Bebbington Shield to some of its former glory, with CHB still maintaining up to six clubs in recent seasons, amid a general decline in numbers of smaller town and country clubs nationwide.
The Shield travels with a diary of results and match reports, started soon after the trophy was first presented in 1921.
The "bible", they call it, has a gap of four years from 2014 to 2018 because CHB struggled to find challengers, including 2017 when Rangitikei pulled out a day before it was to have travelled from Marton to Waipukurau for the game.
Team medic and Waipawa Country vice-president Jacqui Cudby says the concerns led to the gathering of two players or recent players from each club to get Shield rugby going again, and provide opportunities for players who still wanted more rugby after the end of the club competitions.
It has asked the Hawke's Bay rugby union to consider some restoration of the once-popular sub-union rugby in the region, which included an early season sub-unions' day in which six areas were represented, a concept otherwise kept alive only by the Ross Shield tournament for intermediate and primary schools players from Napier, Hastings, Hastings West, Wairoa, CHB and Dannevirke.
Whatever, CHB is not hanging around waiting for something to happen. It has become a regular pre-season opponent for provincial sides looking for match practice ahead of the Heartland Championships, having played both Wairarapa Bush, and Horowhenua Kapiti in recent years, and hopeful of a match against King Country next winter.
"It's the next level," said Cudby. "Hopefully more players will be able to go on to higher honours."
CHB was beaten 59-12 by Horowhenua Kapiti last year, but coach Baker reckons it'll be much more competitive next Saturday when the two sides meet at Otane Domain.
The Hawke's Bay Magpies Ranfurly Shield and Bunnings NPC Premiership squad celebrated its last pre-competition match with a 33-29 win over Counties-Manukau in Taupō on Friday. The return to the top level of the NPC starts with a match against Taranaki next Saturday.
Among other results over the weekend Hastings Boys' High School and Napier BHS each had wins in the Super 8 boys schools first XVs' championship on Saturday.
Hastings beat Tauranga Boys College 22-8, guaranteeing a place in the August 14 final with the hope of an unbeaten record as it plays defending champion Hamilton BHS in the last round-robin match next Saturday. Napier BHS, already out of the running ended and beat New Plymouth BHS 27-24.
The Hastings win guaranteed the side a place in the final, the only unbeaten side and with still one round-robin match to go next Saturday, against defending champion Hamilton BHS next Saturday.
In the 10-team Central North Island schools competition, bottom placed St John's College, of Hastings, was beaten 50-7 by unbeaten leader St Peter's School, in Cambridge, while Lindisfarne's last round-robin doubles as a traditional fixture between the schools in Hastings on Tuesday, with the same two sides set to meet again in a fifth to eighth place playoff just four days later, again in Hastings.
Two other matches at Park Island, Napier, saw Poverty Bay scoring a double against fellow Heartland union Wairarapa Bush. It won the Heartland teams match 36-31 and the opening match of the Hurricanes Heartlands unions Under 20 series 26-19.