This year marks the 100th season of the Gallaher Shield being awarded as the symbol of supremacy in Auckland club rugby.
The shield is a fitting memorial to Dave Gallaher, who encapsulated the very best of New Zealand rugby. Gallaher was captain of the 1905 All Blacks, an outstanding leader, tactical mastermind, and one of rugby's first great thinkers. He also played for the Auckland province and Ponsonby.
Gallaher retired as a player after the 1905–06 tour and became a selector for both Auckland and New Zealand for most of the following decade.
Even though he was exempt from conscription because of age, after two of his brothers had been killed in WW1, Gallaher enlisted in the New Zealand Division to fight in Europe and was fatally wounded, aged 43, in 1917 at the Battle of Passchendaele in Belgium.
He has since been inducted into the World Rugby Hall of Fame, International Rugby Hall of Fame, and the New Zealand Sports Hall of Fame.
The Gallaher Shield is contested annually by Auckland club's premier men's teams, with the current format including round robin play, semifinal and a final. In honour of the 99 seasons contested to date, here's a look back at the wonder years of Gallaher Shield rugby, its highlights, milestones and controversies.
1922: The first Gallaher Shield
The Gallaher Memorial Shield (to give it its full name) was presented to the Auckland Rugby Union for its senior competition in time for the 1922 season. The Shield would be played for over two full rounds, although no clear proviso was made for a tie. As it happened, that wasn't needed; Grammar was the best of a strong top four and settled matters in the final week.
Ponsonby could have been the giant killers although they fell by the wayside after losing both matches with College Rifles and Marist. Ponies beat Grammar, the eventual winners, twice and those defeats kept interest up until the final round.
1926: Explain how this works
It took a long time before the ARFU hit upon a logical, settled Gallaher Shield format but 1926 was, by a mile, the weirdest system that was ever tried.
After an outstanding Ponsonby team rolled over all opposition and completed ten matches with ten wins — Grammar, second on the ladder, had four losses — you may think determining a winner was pretty easy. But, no. The Union had to try and put some interest into the competition, or so they thought. So, Ponsonby had to meet a challenge for the Shield before it headed off to the engravers — from North Shore, the winner of Senior B.
No matter that Ponsonby had locked the title up in late June; forget about the fact they had rolled the Rest of Auckland 27-9 in a rep trial; don't mind that the last time the club had all its players was in mid-July, who cares that North Shore played Senior B all year...
Ponsonby had to meet and beat Shore on September 25. They very nearly didn't, getting up over a team that had nothing else to prepare for in months by 6-5. But after that near miss, the daft legislation was hastily scrubbed out of the playing conditions again.
1933: The never-ending season
For a year that saw the Auckland Rugby Union celebrate its 50th Jubilee, the season was a shambles. As more rep matches were added to the calendar, club matches got pushed back and back, with three weeks between matches nothing out of the ordinary. So much disruption took place that, by late September, three teams could still claim the Gallaher Shield. If Ponsonby beat Marist on October 7, however, they would be clear winners. Instead, what we got was: Marist 25 Ponsonby 5. A three-way tie was created with University the third team involved.
At the ARFU meeting on the Wednesday, common sense finally prevailed (it would have taken at least another three weeks to settle this mess) and the 20th century's only triple-tie was declared.
1937: The biggest crowd to ever watch a championship match
Auckland simply couldn't settle on an easy system for awarding the Gallaher Shield in the 1930s and strange as it may seem, it wasn't always the biggest trophy at stake.
In some seasons "Dave" was awarded to the first round winner, while the second round was played for the Jubilee Trophy and then a Charity Cup decider, between the two winners, would take place. There's an obvious flaw in this set-up, but in 1937 the match was between Ponsonby (Gallaher Shield) and University (Jubilee Trophy). Ponsonby won easily enough, 27-12, but the game drew the biggest crowd ever to a championship match (58,500).
The real reason was the second match of the day was the third test between New Zealand and South Africa. But it still must have been a thrill for Dave Solomon and Wally Knight to score hat-tricks in front of that mob.
1942: The rugby league players who won the Gallaher Shield
Season 1942 was at the height of World War Il, and disruption was the norm. Only Manukau of pre-war clubs fielded a stand-alone team in the top grade this season. Grafton and Ponsonby had combined, as had University and Grammar. Service teams were at the whim of military authorities, of course, and sometimes games simply couldn't take place.
The final points table looked odd, with the top team on 7.5, the next best 6.6, and so on. Heading the table was Motor Transport Pool; as the name implies, this was a motorised unit and saw a lot of service in the Western Desert and Italy.
The first XV was more used to being the First XIII, as almost all the men were rugby league players before the war, and allowed to swap codes due to the relaxation of transfer rules.
Two of them – Bob Scott and Johnny Simpson – were to have fine careers with the Kiwis, the All Blacks and another outstanding Gallaher Shield winner, Ponsonby in 1948.
1945: If you're having trouble getting to the Park
The final match in 1945 was a winner-take-all affair between Ponsonby and Whenuapai, (where the Royal New Zealand Air Force was based).
Since the end of July, it had taken 13 weeks to play the final six matches and the season was dragging. With the war in the Pacific now over, everyone in uniform was in a hurry to get home, and that included members of the RNZAF.
But come final day, the brass felt a few guys who had been around in May might help the team and sent a courtesy, tax-payer funded, flight around the country to collect those who might otherwise have a spot of bother getting to the Park on October 6.
The most notable was Marlborough winger Laurie Edwards (a South Island rep that year), but he was only one of many that had Ponsonby fans screaming. Whenuapal duly won 8-3 to claim the last wartime Gallaher Shield and their one and only title.
Fifty years later, Ponsonby captain Percy Tetzlaff was still puking over what happened and his team took that "We wuz robbed" feeling to their graves.
1956: A shared title that didn't sit well
A shared title in 1956 between University and Otahuhu didn't sit well with the Auckland Rugby Union - although the two clubs were perfectly satisfied. After a titanic battle ended with the scores level, the University and Otahuhu players shook hands and left the field, no doubt looking for a cold beer or two.
Officials rushed around trying to get them to go back out and play extra time, but neither team was having any — there was no provision for it in the rules, and they felt a shared title was a fair result.
If anything, University's 21-year-old skipper John Graham was more adamant they wouldn't play on and yet a win would have given them the second leg of what would have become a treble a year later. Otahuhu was quite happy to share its first Gallaher Shield crown with the Students.
Auckland Rugby Union chairman Tom Pearce may have got over it all before he died, but possibly he didn't.
1960s: The success of Otahuhu
It took 30 years before Otahuhu became a force in Auckland rugby but when they did, they dominated for a decade. After sharing the 1956 title, then then won six outright by 1969.
Never the quickest starters — Otahuhu has still never won the Alan McEvoy Trophy — the red-and-blacks were almost unbeatable in the 1960s when the whips were cracking down the stretch.
Otahuhu is the only club other than Ponsonby to have won three consecutive outright titles, which they did in 1959-60-61, when former Otahuhu College stars Mac Herewini and Waka Nathan were leading performers.
1962: Mighty Waitemata
Almost lost in the mists of history, unless you live out Henderson way, is one of the finest of all Gallaher Shield champions. They played at a time when ten points was a huge score, when games could be ugly and 3-0 scorelines were not rare; when one or more matches each round would be drawn; and when the laws did everything to prevent attacking rugby taking place.
The team was Waitemata, and in 1961 and 1962 they fashioned two remarkable, but quite different records. In 1961 they scored most points in the Alan McEvoy Trophy round, conceded the least, and sneaked into the Gallaher Shield round as sixth qualifier.
A year later, in one of the most even competitions ever held, Waitemata did the rare McEvoy Trophy — Gallaher Shield double (it was only accomplished three times in 20 years), and managed to do so unbeaten.
Of all the minor miracles in Auckland club rugby, that has to rate as one of the strangest.
1968: Bear Thomas's last game
Popular Manukau skipper Barry "Bear Thomas" had announced his intention to retire at the end of the 1968 season and, as the year rolled on, it looked as if he might go out on the highest possible note.
Ponsonby had steam-rolled to the Alan McEvoy Trophy, but Manukau was the only team to beat them, and the last weekend of the season saw the two square off again in what was basically a Gallaher Shield final. If Manukau won, the trophy was theirs; if Ponsonby won, they would go around again four days later.
After what was universally described as "one of the best club games seen in Auckland for years" Manukau – thanks to a brilliant effort from fullback Roger Whatman – triumphed 20-16. The emotions of the day became a party that went on and on, as Manukau (and Thomas) celebrated the club's first Gallaher Shield in style.
1982: The first final
Until 1981, the Gallaher Shield had been awarded to the team that topped the second-round log, with the proviso that, after 1956, a playoff would be held if necessary. Oddly enough, it was not that usual to have the extra game but finally common sense prevailed and semis and a final were added to the programme in 1982. The first final, between Otahuhu and Grammar in 1982, was played in perfect weather and drew a crowd of around 20,000 to Eden Park, who saw Otahuhu claim their first title in 13 years.
1990: Ponsonby annihilate Marist on a flooded pitch
Marist was a warmish favourite for the 1990 final as they were the defending champions and had all their stars available, which meant seven All Blacks of the past, present or future.
Ponsonby also had their five All Blacks and several Pasifika internationals on hand, but nobody was prepared for what happened — Ponsonby played superbly on a flooded pitch and scored five tries, the last a splashdown job by Va'aiga Tuigamala when he dived well short of the line and surfed over. Long before the end, which came at 32-3, Marist looked as if they wished to be elsewhere.
2011: Ponsonby wins for the eighth straight time
No club in any of the metros has ever produced a run of championships quite like this one — between 2001 and 2011, Ponsonby won 10 of the 11 titles including an amazing eight straight from 2004-11. Some wins were relatively straightforward and some came hard, but the last, against Grammar Carlton in 2011, was as tough as it got.
Determined to dethrone the perennial champions and playing at Auckland Grammar School rather than Eden Park (which was being prepped for the World Cup) Grammar had Ponsonby under all kinds of pressure which was only exacerbated by in-game injuries as they closed from 9-20 to 18-20 in the third quarter.
However, Ponsonby found the resolve they needed and hung on to claim one of the club's more difficult championships by two points.
A number of Ponsonby players collected multiple winners' medals in the early years of the 2lst Century, with seven or even eight not out of the ordinary. But only one man got the full set of 10. That was Brett Williams, the midfield maestro who eventually played 200 matches for The Ponies and, as of 2022, still has a commanding lead on the club's all-time scoring list.
2021: Eden win after 99 years of trying
One of the most engrossing Gallaher Shield wins was the most recent.
After 99 years of trying, Eden finally won the Gallaher Shield for the first-time last year, beating Grammar TEC 19-10.
A bunch of unheralded players without a senior representative contract between them, and who were ranked fourth after the round-robin, Eden had knocked Ponsonby, the Alan McEvoy Trophy winners, out in the semi finals with a commanding performance which they repeated at Eden Park a week later in driving wind and rain.
Grammar TEC was a formidable opponent but on the day, the no-name Eden side delivered another fine performance, with the final whistle bringing an outpouring of emotion from their players and supporters.
Everyone in Auckland rugby felt especially happy for 88-year-old Tom O'Hanlon, an Eden club life member and a man who has been there through thick and thin. Two strong men with sharp chisels wouldn't have got that grin off his face in a month.