SportsSeptember 2, 2017

The Battle of the Bridge is a provincial rugby rivalry worth reviving


It should be New Zealand provincial rugby’s greatest rivalry, but the Battle of the Bridge barely rates a mention on the list of great contests. Is 2017 the year to change all that? Scotty Stevenson certainly hopes so.

I have a soft spot for North Harbour. I really do. I once captained an under-19 grade Harbour side to three consecutive losses so I know all about defeat in the white, black and maroon. It was a hell of a team, too, back in 1996. It was built around three clubs – Takapuna, East Coast Bays, and Silverdale, and when we played each other in club footy it is fair to say there was not a lot of love lost. I still remember the club final against Silverdale. We lost 9-6 thanks to a late dropped goal. It was 21 years ago and I still hate thinking about it.

I played for Takapuna, and our home ground was Onewa Domain, the scene of the last great violent final in New Zealand provincial history. That Eric Rush and Robin Brooke were both sent from the field back in that 1994 season climax is evidence enough that the bad blood between Harbour and Auckland had boiled over that day. That Eric managed to knock out Zinzan Brooke probably deserved more that a card. It is one of the singular achievements of his, or anyone else’s rugby career. It deserved a medal.

There was more to that game than Eric Rush’s act of divine thuggery, of course. It was a ripper of a contest, really, with Colin Hawke doing his best to control a level of aggression more often seen in a shearers’ brawl at the Golden Fleece Hotel than on the playing field of a televised rugby final. That it remains the most famous game between these two provinces is both historically wonderful, and rather disconcerting.

Truth is, there have been some great games between Auckland and its upstart breakaway neighbour but rarely (if ever) have they reached the unadulterated levels of hatred that made that 1994 game famous. I’m not one to espouse violence as a virtue but by God that game had some feeling. The packed embankment, the windy afternoon, the week-long wind-up marketing campaign, the fact Auckland thought they should host the game – it all coalesced around 80 minutes of unbelievable entertainment.

Ian Jones was putting in grubber kicks down the sideline, Robin Brooke was kicking anything that was living until he was sent off, Blair Larson was swinging arms at heads and somehow wasn’t sent off, Waisake Sotutu was just looking like a boss with his legendary moustache. So good! Where are we now?

The sad truth is North Harbour have only won once against Auckland since 2006, and long before that, their fan-base had deserted them. A once packed Onewa Domain turned into a pitifully patronised Albany Stadium, and it has largely remained that way. I have never figured out why that is the case. Albany is easy to get to for those who dwell on the shore, it’s a perfectly good stadium with a good view of the ground, and the team is not exactly complete cake, as a title last year would tell you.

Anyway, stadiums, crowds, night games, SKY television, blah, blah, blah… the real question is how a rivalry between two provinces separated by the Diet Sydney Harbour Bridge, boasting a combined population somewhere around the one million mark is not the biggest thing in the game. It’s a mystery. No, it’s more than that. It’s a total debacle.

I say it is time to get back on the horse here. The Battle of the Bridge should not be some low-key mid-season showdown. It should be Auckland’s Old Firm, our most anticipated and talked about game all year. It should split families, strain friendships, earn and cost lunch bets, destroy marriages, make you choose between your children. It should be the biggest thing in town, not something that is happening next door while you hang out in a mega mall.

I say for Father’s Day you head along to Albany in the late afternoon and watch the battle reborn. Or at least let your dad go. He’ll remember Ofisa Tonu’u on fire in that 1994 final, and the Bunce-Little combination in full swing. He’ll remember the punches and the blood and Sean Fitzpatrick’s head-gear. He’ll even remember Warren Burton.

It’s a shame we don’t remember more.

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