Phil Gifford's reflections on Ranfurly Shield rugby in a time of plague, and the most memorable after-match speech he's ever heard.
Orangetheory Stadium in Christchurch deserved to be packed with a heaving, yelling crowd for another great chapter in the Ranfurly Shield story, with Taranaki taking the venerable trophy 23-22, after leading 20-3 at halftime, and looking as if they might put 50 points on a strangely passive Canterbury team.
Because of Covid-19 the spectator experience was actually beyond strange. Parking lots typically guarded jealously by officials in white coats were wide open. To get to the press bench I asked a security man if I could walk on the grass in the front of the stand, which usually requires an array of passes, a DNA sample, and a reference from Buckingham Palace, and he said, "I dunno. I guess that's okay." The crowd was so small I recognised my dentist waving hello two pods away from the press bench. And when Beauden Barrett first kicked for touch from a penalty, it was so quiet you could hear the "thwack" as he kicked the ball.
Some days are diamonds, and some days are even better
Talking of Beauden Barrett. If you believe in omens, none could have been more telling than the kick he made in the 23rd minute, 40 metres out from the Canterbury line. A freakish bounce saw the ball hit the corner flag, and suddenly Canterbury were under pressure again. Barrett is a hugely gifted player but that was insane. If Canterbury wondered who the gods of rugby were smiling on in Saturday's game, they had their answer right there.
A star on the rise
Wing Jacob Ratumaitavuki-Kneepkens is only 19 years old, in his first year out of Francis Douglas Memorial College. He's had talent scouts chasing him since he was 15, when the Parramatta Eels offered him an NRL academy contract in Sydney. He was still at school when Clark Laidlaw, the coach of the All Black Sevens, signed him up for two years with the national team.
In the shield game in Christchurch he was electric, flying through the air for his first try, and then wrong footing Richie Mo'unga, one of the quickest stepping men in the game, for his second, after backing up a run by Beauden Barrett that was a reminder of how truly thrilling rugby in daylight on a firm ground can be.
As well as his footballing gifts Ratumaitavuki-Kneepkens isn't without a sense of humour too. In January he told an interviewer how as a primary school kid he got his first pair of rugby boots and a rugby ball as a Christmas present, and would sleep with them next to him. "Yes, I was a weird kid."
When the squad expands, he'll surely be there
It was fitting that the man who turned over the ball in the last moments of the challenge was Taranaki flanker Lachlan Boshier, who was outstanding from the first whistle.
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That would have been no surprise to Wallabies coach Dave Rennie who last week memorably said of the North Island selection, "Geez, it's impressive, isn't it? If you can leave someone like Lachlan Boshier out, who I thought was incredible during Super Rugby Aotearoa."
When the extra players, possibly as many as a dozen, are named to go to Australia for the Rugby Championship, it'd be strange if Boshier wasn't amongst them.
No pressure, but the game does hings on this kick
When Canterbury's replacement outside back Andrew Knewstubb flew in for a try in the 70th minute, and Richie Mo'unga kicked the conversion, the Shield, with the score at 22-20 to Canterbury, looked set to stay in Christchurch.
Three minutes later Jordie Barrett was lining up a 48-metre penalty kick at goal. Barrett doesn't mess around. It was just 15 seconds from the time he had the ball settled on the tee, to the moment when, after five steps in, he made his kick. It was, as they would happily tell you in the Pungarehu area in Taranaki where the Barrett boys grew up, never in doubt.
If you're a coach you would like him when he's angry
Taranaki played with real fervour from the opening whistle, but for most of the first 40 minutes there was a strange lassitude in the Canterbury team.
One massive exception was lock Sam Whitelock. Whitelock won turnovers, stole a lineout, almost unheard of in today's era of lifting the jumper, dragged the Taranaki halfback Lisati Milo-Harris down with just one hand on his jersey, grabbed Jordie Barrett by the collar for an intense discussion, made ground every time he touched the ball, and generally showed that he'll celebrate his 32nd birthday in three weeks time in some of the best form of his career.
If every speech was like this you'd never want to miss an after-match function
No words were involved in my favourite off the field Ranfurly Shield moment. It's 1967 and we're packed into a function room under the stand at McLean Park in Napier. Hawke's Bay, led by the great Kel Tremain, have just thrashed Waikato 35-9 (today, with five point tries the score would have been 49-9). The Waikato captain Dave Wood is asked to speak. He tries. Then he starts laughing, and can't stop. Unable to talk, he leaves the stage to rapturous applause.