The beneficiaries of Ha' />

Never could a Ranfurly Shield win have been more timely than North Harbour's heroic and historic victory over Canterbury.

The beneficiaries of Harbour's win have been three-fold: the impoverished Harbour union most of all but also New Zealand provincial rugby, which for most of this season has been parlously placed, and the shield itself.

With the win Harbour may now have shaken off the tag of chokers and under-achievers which has plagued the union in its 21 years since 10 clubs across the bridge broke away from Auckland.

Even with iconic players like Wayne Shelford and Frano Botica in the first few seasons, and gaining national championship first division status in 1988, Harbour have always battled for an identity and acceptance even among their own public and some sort of tangible hardware.

Ten previous shield challenges ended in defeat and Harbour's one appearance in a NPC final brought the Battle of Onewa Domain in which a loss to Auckland was marred by violence.

But now Harbour have the most famous prize in New Zealand rugby and the chance to build a heritage and tradition by having a lengthy reign.

The shield now goes into hibernation over the summer, meaning Harbour can line up a favourable programme of defences in 2007. And that may mean at long last spectators turning up in large numbers to the stadium in Albany, easing the liability for North Shore ratepayers.

Harbour, as they showed yesterday with their ability to seize dazzling backline tries against the run of the play, have the capability to be long-term holders, too, provided some of their obvious weaknesses such as scrummaging can be remedied.

As has been the case so often in the past, the magic of the shield, and yesterday's result, have revived New Zealand rugby at a time when the state of the provincial competition needed a major boost.

Some of the rugby played in the NPC has been mediocre and that coupled with saturation TV coverage and an unfathomable format have meant declining attendances. That decline would not have been arrested if Canterbury had survived against Harbour and next weekend faced Auckland.

Without Richie McCaw and Daniel Carter again, Canterbury would surely have lost to Auckland and it could be only wondered what good that would have done the game as a whole. Yesterday's result, and the resolve and then jubilation of the Harbour players, plus the desperation of Canterbury, was the final riposte, too, to those cynics who believe the shield no longer has any meaning.

It is becoming increasingly hard to rely on the national union focused only on the top end of the game to do the right thing these days, but any temptation to tamper with the shield format should be firmly resisted.


Harbour's Challenges

v Auckland 1986 lost 18-6
v Auckland 1988 lost 39-12
v Auckland 1990 lost 18-9
v Auckland 1992 lost 25-16
v Taranaki 1996 lost 13-11
v Waikato 1996 lost 17-14
v Auckland 1996 lost 69-27
v Waikato 1998 lost 39-22
v Waikato 2000 lost 24-11
v Canterbury 2002 lost 65-10
v Canterbury 2006won 21-17