New Zealand has more than 500 rugby clubs which makes selecting a 'First XV of classics', an endeavour sure to stir spirited discussion. Our selection criteria was based on All Blacks produced, championships won, history,
uniqueness and rivalry.
We have tried to avoid, where possible, Marist clubs, High School Old Boys' and Varsity clubs because they represent massive institutions (the Catholic church; traditional single-sex state education networks; universities) rather than community.
Christchurch HSOB warrant a place on the list due to their unique reputation of being a first five factory and Otago University also makes an appearance through sheer weight of All Blacks and its indelible part of that particular province's rugby history.
The list is subjective and those clubs who feel aggrieved by their omission should write in for a potential redux in 2021.
Our First XV of classic Kiwi clubs will be rolled out three a week over five weeks.
Varsity clubs are, by design, mostly transient institutions where rugby is played with all the joie de vivre of youth and the after-match is a party testament to the uninhibited bacchanal you'd expect from those untethered from their parents – and drinking-age restrictions – for the first time.
While this is true of most of New Zealand's university affiliated rugby clubs, everything about Otago University RFC is amplified, from the premier championships to the honours board of All Blacks (although the 44 listed here are those that first made the All Blacks while at the club, another 20 or so All Blacks have at one time played for the Light Blues).
Although Varsity remains the team other clubs, particularly Southern, enjoy beating most – the middle-class blow-ins versus the blue-collar locals is a popular Otago club rugby narrative – Dunedinites recognise the value of the university to its rugby fabric.
Quite simply, Otago rugby would not be the same without the "scarfies".
Don't believe me, ask Tuppy Diack. The 90-year-old, one-test All Black began his association with the club when he started for the Varsity B's in 1951 and ended it as a technical adviser for an under-20s team in the mid-80s.
As a player he won six consecutive championships from 1953-58 while studying for a bachelor of arts, before attending teachers' training college. As was the case in those days, once you had finished tertiary study you were required to leave and play for a local club, so he took himself off to Zingari-Richmond for four years, before rejoining University as a selector and coach.
"We really coached ourselves in those early days," he recalls, "but we must have done okay at it."
He was picked for the A team, then Otago, as a centre, but the All Black "selectors said they had plenty of them and told me to move to the wing".
He did so effectively enough to make the side for the second test against the Lions in Wellington in 1959 and although the home side won a dour test 11-8, it was felt he didn't have the pace to match up to the Lions' outsides, including Irish wunderkind Tony O'Reilly.
To be fair, top-end speed was never Diack's game but he was a prodigious kicker of the heavy leather ball – "about 50 or 60m"on the fly – and that helped when he moved back to fullback for the latter part of his career.
His All Black tenure might have been brief but he had plenty of rugby left in him. Diack amassed more than 100 caps for Otago, a few for his native Southland, was part of historic wins for the New Zealand Universities against the '56 Springboks and '59 Lions, but it at OURFC where his star shone brightest and longest.
It was a golden age for university rugby and although Speight's played a huge role in lubricating the social wheels, more restrictive licensing laws meant it was different.
"We didn't have clubrooms back then," Diack says, "so we used to get together in the student flats to celebrate. It also helped that a couple of the stalwarts, Bill Mercer and Bill Hogg, both owned pubs, so we made use of those."
A few legends and larger-than-life characters came through the club in the 50s, including champion halfback Chris Laidlaw and five-eighth Earle Kirton, so there were rarely dull moments.
The 90s saw another golden age of eclectic characters pass through the club.
Electrifying backs like Marc Ellis and John Timu lit up University Oval, while the likes of Arran Pene and Jamie Joseph added starch that was sometimes missing in student packs, and knitting things together in the backs was John Leslie, who might not have made the All Blacks like his old man Andy, but who played 23 tests for Scotland as one of the original Kilted Kiwis.
Then there were halfbacks like Casey Mee who would chip in with incessant on- and off-field commentary.
"I was a born-and-bred Dunedin boy who grew up supporting Southern because dad played for and coached them," Mee says. "It was my obvious choice for a club when I left King's High but I wanted to immerse myself into university life and meet new people, so I threw my oar in with them.
"The 90s was a great era to be involved in Otago rugby in general. Dunedin club rugby was exceptionally strong and I like to think University contributed massively to that strength with so many quality players coming to study."
There were so many good players coming into town, Varsity fielded 'A' and 'B' teams in the premier competition.
"That game was always huge, as was the after match," Mee recalls. "This in itself was an indication of the depth of the club, plus a lot of students couldn't fight their way in and went to other clubs as well. No one in those days went straight into the 'As'. Even the likes of Taine Randell and Anton Oliver when they came down played in the under-21 Blues, with your second-year aim, as a 'rugby playing student' being Varsity A.
"Those were the days when All Blacks played regularly. In my first year, 1992, we had Timu, Pene and Joseph in the side, plus a few future All Blacks.
"The 1993 side is the one that gets talked about a lot as we beat Southern by more than 50 points three times. One of those was by 90-odd points for the VG Cavanagh Trophy played at Carisbrook. Nick Broughton dropped the ball over the line to stop us getting 100 points against a Southern team that had Stephen Bachop, Stu Forster and legendary Otago prop Steve Hotton.
"Hotty was interviewed after the final whistle and said that we would be top half of the NPC, which was pretty high praise for a club side.
"There were so many characters in that period and we enjoyed our time off the field as much as on. Captain's run on Thursday was always short, sharp and of very high quality, not just because we took pride in our work, but because we wanted to get to the Cook, Bowler or Ori – take your pick – for a few evening scoops."
Characters dot University's story book. They supplied two of the most exotically named All Blacks in history, one of whom should stand as the perfect embodiment of a university player.
While fullback Donald Robert Louis Stevenson evokes images of Treasure Island and Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, it was a close predecessor to him at Varsity who warrants closer inspection.
Phillippe Sidney de Quetteville Cabot enjoyed an extraordinary but injury ravaged 1921 season that saw him play five first-class matches for five different teams: New Zealand Universities (v Wellington), South Island (v North Island), Probables (v Possibles), Otago (v South Africa) and New Zealand (v New South Wales).
The latter was his first and last match for the All Blacks and his final first-class match. It was a prelude to a fascinating academic life that saw him study at Columbia, Princeton and Harvard, completing his doctorate before moving into a career in paediatrics. He played rugby for the New York Rugby Club and for Harvard, captaining the latter. He was a rugby referee for 14 years and a coach for 20.
He moved to London where he ran a consultancy firm and was, before his death aged 98 in 1998, the oldest living All Black.
His name might be long forgotten by all but the almanacs, but his life was a rich story, like so many of the men who wore light blue.