The 50th anniversary of the end of one of Hawke's Bay rugby's greatest eras passed almost unmentioned a fortnight ago.
But it will be remembered on Saturday as former Magpies return to the scene of the crime – the day Canterbury came to McLean Park in Napier for the 22nd challenge since Hawke's Bay had won the Shield in a 6-0 win over Waikato in Hamilton three years and three days earlier, on September 24, 1966.
The visitors' 18-11 win wasn't the sort of crime you'd report to the police, but while the fans may have struggled to let go, time had come for the family of team, wives, children, and parents.
Tighthead prop Neill Thimbleby, who played every minute of the shield era, as he did in all of his continuing Magpies record of 158 matches from 1959 to 1971, sits at home, still in Napier says: "We had had three great years, and on the day Canterbury outplayed us. That was it."
For some, that most certainly was it. But for Thimbleby it was the start of another journey which sees him now having been Patron of the Hawke's Bay Rugby Union for eight years. And on Saturday, having turned 80 in June and nearing the end of 61 years in Hawke's Bay rugby, he'll be back at the park for the national competition match between the Magpies and Tasman Makos.
The occasion will also be the annual day out-for the Saracens Club, which bonds former representative first-class rugby match players and within it a 50th anniversary reunion for players who appeared in 1969.
Not an official Ranfurly Shield reunion — the last one in 2016 celebrated the 50th anniversary of winning the trophy. But it will still see a few of the regular faces, with some homage to those who have passed, including captain and flanker Kel Tremain, who died in 1992 at age 54.
The Shield era was one thing but for Thimbleby the climax was still to come, in 1970 in the bowels of the old grandstand at now-gone Wellington rugby HQ Athletic Park and hearing New Zealand Rugby Football Union chairman Jack Sullivan announce the name: "N W Thimbleby, Hawke's Bay."
Although "a crook knee" had kept him out of the final trial and threatened the greatest dream, he was one of 30 off with a management of just a manager and a coach on the 1970 All Blacks tour of South Africa. There he would play his only test match, at Boet Erasmus, Port Elizabeth, on August 29, 1970.
A year later, after playing all 13 Magpies matches in 1971 – with losses in the last four – Thimbleby was retiring from telling wife Faye it was time to pay her back for her loyal support of his rugby career and devote all of his time to the family.
"I said to my wife, right, family comes first," he says. "We had three kids, and I was 31."
When he started playing for the Bay in 1959, coaxed by legendary shield-era coach Colin Le Quesne, he received a remuneration of 10 shillings a week to help cover his travel from Taupo to Napier, three times a week for training and matches, including the return in near solitary with barely any other vehicles on the darkened road they now call a highway.
Translated as $1 when New Zealand currency changed from pounds, shillings and pence to dollars and cents 12 days before the era's first defence of the shield in July 1967, it was enough to pay for about half of one return trip.
He soon moved to Napier and began playing for Marist.
Despite the promises, and the devotion to family which included watching son Nigel play Ross Shield primary schools representative rugby for Napier – an ex All Black and Ranfurly Shield hero sleeping a night in the car because of a shortage of accommodation in Wairoa in tournament week – he faced continued pressure to rejoin the fold, and yielded when he accepted the job of coaching the Magpies for three years, in 1979-1981.
He resisted and resisted, but succumbed amid offers from a sponsor to see he was paid. "I never saw a penny," he says, but not in any way that would suggest any regret.
The old firm had barely separated with Thimbleby and such other shield heroes and fellow All Blacks as captain Kel Tremain and star backline pairing Blair Furlong and Ian MacRae, amid the brotherhood of the Saracens, all embarking on rugby careers post-playing.
Tremain and MacRae would become Hawke's Bay union chairmen and Furlong the president, all progressing to the NZRFU's top tables. Each stayed in the Bay and ever loyal to the black and white hoops of the revered jersey.
Thimbleby became Patron in 2011, and to this day offers to stand down if they "find someone else". Although he accepts there's hardly the same selection process as finding a Magpies or All Blacks front-row prop.
Thimbleby never gave a thought to leaving, and he, Faye, three daughters, a son, seven grandchildren and one great-grandchild are still all in Hawke's Bay.
Having also had post-playing careers in running a pub, the Waipukurau Hotel, and orcharding, he says: "One of the lasting memories of the Ranfurly Shield era was that every game, apart from one against Bush, was played in perfect weather, or near enough to it.
"We had a great time, we had a lot of time, and it brought all of Hawke's Bay together, for the games and for the parades each Saturday. Hawke's Bay has a lot going for it, so why would I want to leave"
Symbolic to him was that the Ranfurly Shield era put Hawke's Bay back on the map. That was the case in the 1922-1927 era when Hawke's Bay domination of the rugby fields contributed to the All Blacks' similar dominance of rugby globally, including the 1924-1925 Invincibles tour of 36 wins and no losses of Great Britain and France.
Thimbleby, who in one of rugby writer Lindsay Knight's two Ranfurly Shield tomes was described as "tubby teenager" when the astute Le Quesne pirated him from Taupo and turned him from flanker to prop, became the ironman of the 1966-1969 team.
He was also described by some opposition — when opposing front-rowers were both enemies and friends at the same time — as having a leaning towards refereeing, albeit from the scrum or lineout while playing the game and offering his worldly advice to the man with the whistle and the white jersey also at the same time.
He had just five front-row partners in the shield matches, starting with hooker Myles Reddy and prop Lou Cooper in the successful challenge, eventually succeeded by hooker Gus Meech, and props Hilton Meech and, in the last two matches, Gary Wiig.
McLean Park is not as regular on the schedule as it once was but among the attractions on Saturday, apart from catching up with old teammates, will be that the game will be played in the afternoon, just as were all the shield matches. Games at 7.35pm are not for him any longer, apart from on the tele at home.
Among such games was, after a wait of 44 years, seeing the Shield returned to Hawke's Bay with a Magpies win over Otago in Dunedin in 2013. Those unable to be in Hamilton in 1966 had barely been able to pick it up on the wireless or transistor radio.
It's at home that he keeps proudly the mementos of the playing era, including his 1970 test match jersey, one from the Springboks, his All Blacks cap, the 1969 Hawke's Bay team photo … and a substantial collection of rugby books. Among those is former Hawke's Bay Herald Tribune journalist Mark Taylor's All Blacks Almost, about great rugby players who never made the team.
But for the shield era he might have joined them. And he does wonder if the modern era will mean that without the shield – a near impossible dream for some of unions that once held it – those who retain their loyalty to the former powerbases of the provincial rugby could miss the opportunity.
With Auckland's 1985-1993 sequence of more than 60 successful defences, the shield "lost it glamour," he says. It does mean more to the smaller unions who rarely see it, apart from interludes of sizeable defeats, given the gulf between professional and amateur rugby.
Reflecting on his retirement at the end of 1971, he says: "If it was professional, like it is now, I would have kept on playing."