On the sunny Saturday afternoon of September 14, 1985, at Lancaster Park in Christchurch Auckland beat Canterbury 28-23 in the greatest provincial rugby game ever played in New Zealand.
Why was it so special? Let's count the ways.
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THERE'S NEVER BEEN MORE PUBLIC INTEREST IN A PROVINCIAL GAME
The lead-up was a match-maker's dream.
Canterbury had defended the Ranfurly Shield 25 times. One more victory and they would have beaten the record for defences set by Auckland in 1963. In '63 Auckland had given Hawkes Bay the chance to defend its record of 24 defences, set in 1922-27. In '85 Canterbury also did the right thing, and gave Auckland the same chance to keep the record.
The crowd of 52,000 that turned up was so big officials let fans sit on the ground in front of the fences. That's why, in the middle of the television coverage, the screen is suddenly filled with a 12-year-old Andrew Mehrtens, flinging himself off the grass and out of the sideline crowd to express his ecstasy.
THERE'S RARELY BEEN A HOTTER ISSUE THAN WHETHER THE GAME SHOULD HAVE BEEN LIVE ON TV
"We offered, if Auckland agreed, to play the game on Sunday, so they could screen it live without affecting crowds at games in the rest of the country." Alex Wyllie, now living in North Canterbury, north of Sefton, confirmed this week. "I don't know how far that idea went."
In Auckland former All Black Malcolm Dick, in 1985 on the NZRU council, told me his memory is that the NZRU was resolutely opposed to live broadcasts, so reaching a quick settlement with TVNZ, the only tv broadcaster at the time, was never likely. The match was shown in full the next day.
The NZRU had been toying with live coverage since a test with Australia had been shown live in 1972, but there had never been the public pressure that mounted after 1985's provincial match of the century. When the first World Cup was played two years later the games were covered live.
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THERE WERE SUPERSTARS GALORE. IN '85 ALL BLACKS STILL PLAYED FOR THEIR PROVINCES
Twenty-two of the 30 players who started the game were All Blacks. The Auckland side would provide eight of the players who started the final of the '87 World Cup.
THE COACHES WERE LEGENDS TOO
John Hart and Alex Wyllie were, as Donald Trump might say, straight from central casting.
Hart was from the city, a born and bred Aucklander, a corporate manager at Fletchers, clever, articulate, and urbane. Wyllie presented as a rough and tough farmer, who as a teenager, his father Joe told me, once wrestled a misbehaving shorthorn heifer to the ground. "There were two determined personalities in that paddock, but from then on, Alex was the boss. We took the heifer to the Amberley show and she won supreme champion."
What they did have in common was brilliant selectorial and coaching skills. Hart picked John Kirwan when the great wing was a teenager playing grade rugby, and, against huge public opposition, dropped an All Black, Steve Pokere, for a 27-year-old club player, Joe Stanley. Both calls would prove to be strokes of genius.
Wayne Smith, the man they call The Professor because he's such a scholar of the game, has said Wyllie "really was the complete rugby thinker. He was a very intelligent coach." Wyllie was the first coach in New Zealand to embrace grid training, which would massively lift player skills, designed by former football player, Scotsman Jim Blair. "It was amazing to me," Blair says, "that Alex would take on the ideas of a guy I'd imagined he'd see as a soccer sook."
THE GAME ITSELF WAS BRILLIANT
Coach Hart was determined to take the huge local crowd out of the equation. He urged the huge influx of Auckland supporters to wear as much blue and white as possible. He steered his gifted captain, Andy Haden, a man who off the field never saw a microphone he didn't like, away from the media.
It was the Canterbury players who probably lost a little concentration. When then ran on they lined up and applauded the spectators. "The waving to the crowd was a last second thing," Wayne Smith would say 20 years later. "It possibly pumped us up at a time when we didn't really need to be pumped up any more. But I don't know if that played any part in what happened at the start. That was a great Auckland team."
By halftime Auckland led 24-0. Wyllie's team talk was brief. "The ball's there. Just get the bloody thing, and start scoring points." Bruce Deans did score for Canterbury, but Wyllie thought it had all gone wrong when Auckland's Steve McDowell scored next. Then the tide turned.
"Canterbury just kept coming back," says Joe Stanley, "but I just couldn't believe they could win. Then they got to just five points behind, and they had that look in their eye, and I suddenly thought, 'We could lose this!'"
With time almost up Canterbury had the ball for a lineout. Wayne Smith recalls, "Wayne Burleigh had come on at second-five to replace Warwick Taylor, and I said, 'What do you reckon Burls?'
"He said: 'Let's stick it up.'
"It was a right hand lineout, so I had to come back on the right foot. I told Brucey (Deans, the Canterbury halfback) where I wanted the ball, and just hoisted it. You always hope that it's going to hit something, or you'll get there at the same time, but JK (John Kirwan) managed to tap it out over the dead ball line." Andy Haden would say, "If JK had been an inch shorter he would have missed it. He only got it with the very, very tips of his fingers."
Referee Bob Francis blew for fulltime, and Auckland had won the shield, 28-23.
SHIELD FEVER HIT AUCKLAND
Thousands turned out for a parade up Queen St when the team got home, after playing two more games in the South Island.
Hart made reserve prop, Peter Fatialofa, the keeper of the shield. Fatialofa would later say, "It's funny, but I didn't really realise what a big deal the shield was. Then, when we got back from Christchurch and they had a parade down Queen St, I found out it was a big deal. A REALLY big deal."
Under Hart huge success followed, and when he went to the All Blacks in 1987, Maurice Trapp and Bryan Williams took over the coaching, and Auckland would set an astonishing record of 61 defences, until Waikato beat them, 17-6, in 1993.
THERE WAS EVEN A WEIRD BACK STORY
Television viewers saw Wyllie apparently backhand an innocent spectator as he strode to the middle of the field at halftime for his team talk.
The truth was more complex. "A group of people came and stood in front of us in the stand in the first half," Wyllie would later tell me. "We asked them to move, so we could see what was going on. One of them turned round and swore at us.
"He said, 'Come on, have a go.' Then he wrapped a chain he'd had round his waist around his hand. One of the Auckland reserves said he'd seen one of the other guys with a knife. They were eventually moved by the police, but they didn't leave the ground.
"At halftime, just as a gap was opening up for Doug Bruce (Canterbury's assistant coach) and me to get onto the field, I was belted with a punch in the side of my back. I half turned and brushed this joker who'd hit me out of the road. That was when a tv camera caught it."
Thirteen days later a gang member killed a man, a complete stranger to him, with five shotgun blasts in the Woolston Tavern. Christchurch police believe the murderer was one of the group who threatened Wyllie that day at Lancaster Park, although he was not the man who punched Wyllie.
FINALLY, TOO GOOD A STORY TO BE LEFT UNTOLD
A 28-year-old winger from the Marist club in Christchurch, Gary Hooper, had played nine years of senior rugby without ever progressing beyond the Canterbury B team, before Wyllie, wanting speed on the wings, took a chance on him. Hooper would play 27 games for Canterbury, scoring a total of 20 tries.
In the book "The Geriatrics" by Lindsay Knight, Canterbury and All Black prop, John Ashworth takes up the story.
"He was a good player Hoops, but he had some problems in his first couple of games. He wore contact lenses and these hadn't been working properly for some reason, and during a game he'd dropped the ball a couple of times with the line open. After the match Grizz (Wyllie) and Hoops happened to visit the toilet at the same time, and found themselves standing side by side. Embarrassed by his mistakes, Hoops told Grizz he was sorry for dropping the ball but he was having trouble with his sight, although he was sure it was fixed and would be right now.
"Grizz said, 'Well, I hope you get your eyes fixed sooner or later, because right now you're pissing down my trouser leg.'"