Northland rugby's oldest trophy, the Harding Shield, celebrates its centenary tomorrow as its 2014 season kicks off in Mangonui.

While most rugby fans follow the shield for the onfield battles, few would know how the inter-sub-union competition came to be.

Named after Alfred Ernest Harding, for his status as an early pioneer in Northland rugby as a club player and later as an administrator for Northern Wairoa and the North Auckland Rugby unions, the shield was originally contested in a challenger-type competition.

Harding - who was born in 1861 and died at 85 in 1946 - was prominent in local affairs in the Northern Wairoa A&P Association, Hobson County Council, Chamber of Commerce, and as a member of parliament for Kaipara between 1902-1905.


So it is only fitting that the Harding Shield is now a prominent local derby.

Essentially, the Harding Shield was Northland's version of the Ranfurly Shield.

Holders were challenged at their home ground, although challengers could only be from the country unions north of the Waitakere rail tunnel that were registered to the Auckland Rugby Union North.

However, unlike the Ranfurly Shield, the original rules state no sub-union could challenge for the shield more than once. There was also a clause giving challenging unions a third of the gross proceeds from the match, unlike the Ranfurly Shield.

Whangarei has dominated the history of the Harding Shield, holding it 41 times compared to Mangonui and Bay of Islands 14, and Northern Wairoa/Rodney's 11.

However, there are gaps in the history from 1988 and between 1994 and 2010.

Taniwha head coach Derren Witcombe said that when Harding Shield rugby was strong, Northland rugby was strong. Since Witcombe took over as Northland's coach last year, he has been stoked with the buy-in from clubs and players, with the former All Black and Northland hooker wanting to pick local. "This time last year they weren't getting together until a week before the games - which is great, something has changed," Witcombe noted, adding he was using the Harding Shield as a selection tool.

While some are not happy the Bayleys Southern Districts Competition has been shifted forward a month to allow for Harding Shield games, players and coaches are getting behind it.

Witcombe said it looked as though players were keen, which hopefully meant he would be faced with a tough choice for his last six or so ITM Cup selections. "We will be making selections from that. We'll be contracting 28-30," Witcombe said, adding that currently 23 had been contacted. "We have a few positions to fill and will be looking at that competition to fill them.

"The flow-on effect is players who perform will play for the Bs, if they're available, and like last year we'll be picking from there if we have injuries. It's an important competition and it is good people have bought into it."