You only get one opportunity to challenge for the Ranfurly Shield and you gotta be prepared to win.
Phil Halse and Stephen Griffin didn't mince their words when asked about the coveted Log o' Wood and whether the Northland Taniwha have what it takes to topple holders Hawke's Bay in Napier tomorrow night. The duo were part of the 1978 North Auckland side that defied all odds to stave off a strong defence from hosts and holders Manawatu to bring the shield to Northland.
"There have been a huge amount of challenges in between since 1972. I think the point is, and I think anyone who has played provincial rugby knows, you don't get too many opportunities to win," Halse said.
"You only get one opportunity to challenge and you gotta be prepared to win. It's not about coming second, it's about winning."
Casting his mind back to the shield challenge in 1978, New Zealand Rugby's coaching director told the northerners they had no chance— they might as well not turn up to Palmerston North because Manawatu were that good. They were the top team in the country.
They had an All Blacks trio in the front row and a classy backline.
"We were dropping games and players were changing. We played Australia a week before the challenge in 1978. A week later, Australia smashed the All Blacks," Griffin recalled.
"We were losing everything. We couldn't even find our valuables after the Australia game— that's how bad we were."
An injury to the master tactician Sid Going and other halfbacks down the pecking order, including Wayne Dunning, handed Griffin— a fullback for Hikurangi and Whangārei in the sub-union competition— the No 9 jersey for North Auckland.
Halse was the openside flanker but played both No 7 and No 8 depending on the tactics in play during the shield challenge.
On the field, North Auckland were getting smashed— the forwards were going backwards and Griffin was struggling to put the ball in the scrum.
"We were up against a formidable forward pack who had just smashed Wellington in the game before us. But we had a really, really good build up against Australia," Halse reminisced.
It didn't take long to realise that their smart tactical kicking, pressure at scrum time, and bit of good luck were paying dividends.
Manawatu's forwards had run out of steam by halftime when their team should have been up by about 30 points if not for missed opportunities.
North Auckland's scrum was light and inexperienced, the team lost its lock on the morning of the game, prop Kahu Sutherland hobbled off at the breather with a hamstring injury, forcing their reserve hooker to play prop.
"I'd worked out really early that it's no good passing it to Eddie Dunn because he'd just been named in the All Blacks to go overseas and they thought their man Jim Carroll should be in so they were really gonna smash Eddie," Griffin said.
"So all I did was kick the ball over to the forwards all the time and their wingers dropped it and so that's how we got field position."
The crucial moment came with about six minutes to go when the host's replacement halfback, in place of injured test scrumhalf Mark Donaldson, fed the scrum with the scoreboard showing 10-9 to Manawatu.
North Auckland swapped the lock and put Bevan Holmes on the tighthead side, skipper Peter Sloane managed to hook the ball back, and Manawatu conceded a penalty when their halfback was ruled offside.
Centre Chippie Semenoff's kick sailed between the sticks and the rest, as they say, is history.
Semenoff said if the current crop played to their potential tomorrow night and cut out their mistakes, they could bring the shield to Northland.
"It's not a normal game. It's a game you get few opportunities to play in and everyone needs to put aside their ego and play as a team"
The 1978 win was the third shield victory for North Auckland but the team lost the challenge trophy to Auckland in 1979.
"We won the shield on penalties and we lost it to Auckland in Whangārei on penalties because we didn't kick our penalties on the day," Griffin said.
He said the current team have been playing well in the Mitre 10 Cup for two to three years, they were travelling well, have good skills, and players who were willing to work hard.
"The good thing about this game is it's actually Hawke's Bay's first defence and there's a huge difference between challenging for the shield and defending the shield.
"Northland need to make sure they're mentally ready, ready to play the game at a higher pace than they normally do, do the basics well.
"Timing of the tacklers have gotta be right, timing of the turnover, they can't afford to give away dumb penalties, they can't afford to have people in the sin bin, they can't afford for stupid kicks to go nowhere."
Halse said team spirit and camaraderie were huge motivating factors, as were being fit and well-prepared.
He will be in Napier to cheer on the Taniwha tomorrow. Straight after the 1978 shield victory when the team returned to their hotel room, Halse said every Northlander who travelled down to Palmerston North came around to the hotel.
Griffin's mum worked in the old post office in central Whangārei and he recalled the frenzy that gripped the city when the final whistle was blown.
"They had the radio going at the post office and they were serving customers and then it got down to Chippie kicking for goal. The last five minutes she said you could have heard the pin drop.
"Nobody did anything, no transactions and she said when the final whistle went and we won, she said it was just an uproar.
Northland head coach George Konia is preparing his team to face a side he played for and later coached.
"Hawke's Bay has been a big part of my life. My parents and my wife's parents are still there. That's where our family home still is, that's where our kids still reside but we moved to Northland because we love it up here.
"There's no hesitation when I say that. My heart will firmly be with Northland."
The big picture, he said, was for Northland to put in a good performance and to come away with maximum competition points.
"We don't want to look too far ahead and play the game before it's actually kicked off.
They're a very good team, they play an exciting brand of rugby and if the conditions are good, it would be an exciting game for the fans to watch.
"[The] Battle upfront is going to be pivotal and making sure we finish the opportunities that we create," Konia said.
The match kicks off at 7.05pm.