By WYNNE GRAY
Some of New Zealand's greatest rugby players have never been in a winning Ranfurly Shield side.
Waikato flankers Jonno Gibbes and Marty Holah were not in the team who challenged and beat Auckland for the famous trophy in late 1997, but they know what it is like to be part of the squad who have defended the log o' wood 21 times.
Gibbes' recent visit to a rest-home underlined to him what the shield means to heartland rugby and to All Black legends such as Colin Meads, Brian Lochore, Andy Dalton and Wayne Shelford, who never won the trophy.
On a tour of the Te Awamutu retirement centre, Gibbes met Eileen Gordon, grandmother of former Waikato rugby favourites Steve and Rob.
"It was just staggering to find out how much they valued and talked about the shield. It was everything about rugby for many people there," Gibbes said.
That sort of passion will drive Gibbes and flatmate Holah tomorrow as they line up for the latest defence against Canterbury, a side of international strength who have shown strong form in their last few matches.
While Canterbury have broken new ground with their coaching, organisation and planning, Waikato have shown the bonds of brotherhood that have carried them through a few tight games in this reign.
For Holah and Gibbes, their rugby association goes back a decade to Roller Mills times.
They now share a flat close to Rugby Park with three others, an arrangement they say helps to keep a solid balance between their professional sporting careers and life outside that demanding arena.
A couple of other flatmates are handy footballers, while the last is more into arranging after-match functions.
Holah cooks a fair meal while Gibbes eats well and reciprocates with his house-cleaning skills.
They dovetail a bit like that on the rugby field as well.
"We all use computer analysis like other sides and that shows in things like our order of arrival at the breakdowns. We are starting to work a lot better together," Gibbes said.
He is on the blindside, a taller and heavier man than Holah, who wears the No 7 jersey, where his low centre of gravity allows him to forage and scrabble for the ball in the tackle zones.
Gibbes has beaten a bang on the knee to be ready for this challenge, while Holah plays his 18th and blazer game for Waikato.
"This is the biggest match we have played in," Holah said.
"We are up against many All Blacks, but we can beat them.
"It is all about absorbing and putting on pressure."
Gibbes added: "Our focus has to be about us getting things right. We were disappointed at Pukekohe [loss to Counties Manukau] where we slipped a lot, but this week has been about basic principles and putting into action the things we do well."
The young flankers have been playing their own version of the Olympics this week, sniping away in a domestic table tennis tournament.
The rivalry is strong, with Gibbes claiming a distinct advantage over Holah, though neither is the flat champion.
Tomorrow, however, they will work in tandem, remembering the practices that have helped Waikato through their lengthy tenure and which allowed them to repel Canterbury two years ago when they last met in a shield match.