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SportsSeptember 26, 2015

Sports: The Strange Anatomy of a Shield Challenge or How to End a Promising Night in a Caravan Park


What is it about the words ‘Ranfurly Shield Challenge’ that continues to inspire such fervour? Scotty Stevenson was at McLean Park in Napier to see Hawkes Bay get up to defend the log of wood against Auckland.

It has haunted men, the quest for the Ranfurly Shield. Maybe because of that, because of the ghosts, because of the greats, because of every damn moment, it remains the closest thing New Zealand Rugby has to the Holy Grail.

On a Thursday in Napier, the most successful province in the shield’s 113-year history, Auckland, went hunting for it again. Standing in their way was a Hawkes Bay team, and the terrible burden of expectation.

They rolled deep down the Napier-Taupo Highway in a convoy of sign-written Subarus and Hyundais. They had come to collect the Ranfurly Shield, New Zealand provincial rugby’s most fought over piece of prize lumber. Most people thought they had a good chance of doing just that, these men in the blue and white hoops who just a few days earlier had punched the table-topping Makos right in the face down at Lansdowne Park in Blenheim.

History is a hard task master, and history sided with Auckland and had done for bloody ages in this particular clash. Hawkes Bay had won just once in championship play against the Big City Boys, and that was back in 2009 when, if one was being honest, they did it in style. Before, and since, it had been a one-sided affair. In a rivalry stretching back to 1889, Auckland had emerged victorious from the scrap on 53 of the 75 occasions. There had been five draws.

Auckland’s Coach Paul Feeney had brought the whole team with him, even those who were not selected for the game due to injury, or the whim of the selector. The non-playing crew sat in an alcove under the McLean Park stand in various states of medical impairment – a moon-boot here, an arm cast there – or general nervousness. Some were done for the season, others itched to get back in the fight. A couple of them sipped on cans of Export Gold beer, a very nineties-retro refreshment for a team that wanted to bring some nineties-retro shield fever back to the City of Sails.

The rain had fallen without surcease for the best part of a week across Hawkes Bay. On this bleak and drizzling Thursday night the misty-eyed Magpie Oracles sat in the dripping stands and predicted the prevailing conditions would, in fact, suit their home side – a rough and ready bunch who had withstood ten challenges already in this particular Shield reign and who were disinclined to give any quarter nor expect any in return. They had fashioned a new name for themselves in recent seasons: the Bird Gang. It came, of course, with a hashtag.

Feeney emerged from the changing sheds just before seven. A man of modest proportions whose ginger hair was in the final throes of a grudging retreat from the top of his head, and a hasty redeployment to the front of his face, Feeney knew that this night could be his night. His eyes scanned the park as he stepped onto the grass. He walked quickly, light on his feet, like a recently-retired River Dancer. He nodded and came across for a chat.

“Short turnaround for us, but we’ll see if the boys are up for it,” he said. Which was coach code for “Don’t worry about us, we’re ready to go.” Captain Simon Hickey jogged up. He had lost the coin toss (slumping to 0-7 in such matters this season) but was happy to report that the Auckland side would still be playing in their favoured direction from the kick off. He just couldn’t remember what direction that was.

Hickey, like the other 22 men in his team, had never played in a Shield game for Auckland. Three of the roster had, but their limited experience of the rigours of Ranfurly rugby had been gained with other teams, in different colours, in prior seasons. It seemed remarkable to think that an Auckland side could ever boast a 23-man team that had never before played for the damn thing, let alone raised it in victory. There was a time, some years ago now, when that kind of statistic could have easily applied to every team but Auckland.

The rain. The endless, drenching, misty, cold spring rain. The teams warmed up in the rain. The crowd drank beer in the rain. The windows of the corporate lounges fogged over in the rain. Erstwhile Hawkes Bay commercial man Jay Campbell shuffled down the concrete pad between the changing sheds and the turf. “They ain’t taking the shield from us tonight,” he said, chant-like. There were nerves in the park. Others did not share Campbell’s one-eyed optimism.

Just five days before, Hawkes Bay had been subjected to the sternest test of the shield season by a Bay of Plenty team that has been kicking and punching and clawing their way through games all year. Right to the end they bared their terrible teeth and roared their terrible roars but the Bird Gang held tough, and managed to hold them out on the goal line in the dying seconds of the match. It wasn’t the first time they had been forced to go to the well in a defence of the Ranfurly Shield. Late last season the Stags had come within a point of a victory, before having to settle for a 20-all draw. In shield rugby, a draw is enough for the holder.

The rain eased for kick off, but only just. Trainer Grant Dearns, an imposing figure with a permanent five o’clock shadow and a complete disdain for trousers, patrolled the sideline. masticating with particular vigour on a piece of caffeine gum. His stubbled edifice mirrored the seriousness of the opening exchanges. It was a brutal and beautiful spectacle; Auckland’s forwards every bit the match for the Magpies pack; punch and counter-punch; blood was spilled early and often. The field was a triage ward.

What happened in the first half, however, is of little use to us in the overall description of the match. Auckland went to the break with a two-point lead, but leads of such slender value are rarely of practical value in matches such as these. Hawkes Bay’s ability to hold the ball and play deep inside Auckland’s 50 metres of slick and greasy territory was more telling. And the fact they had won every second half this season, that was telling too.

There are moments in Shield games that stand as markers along the road between victory and defeat. A dropped ball, a well-placed touch finder, the smallest of opportunities taken or squandered – in these games each of those things is magnified, as if each could be analysed in isolation in the great wash up of things and singled out as the root cause of the problem. Auckland’s last shield challenge, against Southland in 2010, had been like that. They had lost that day 9-6.

That singular moment invariably came when Ihaia West lined up a 52-metre penalty attempt and hooked it to the left. Auckland winger Bryce Heem waited under the ball. This was a bread and butter play for Heem, a simple catch and force.

And then the ball was dropped.

Moments later, Ihaia West positioned himself beautifully on an outside line that Auckland replacement hooker Kurt Eklund had no chance at defending, and in he went for Hawkes Bay’s second and final try. There were other moments too – a missed kick for goal, a poor kick for touch. And, yes, there were moments at the end – Israel Dagg was forced off with a dislocated shoulder, Richard Buckman was left with one good foot, Ricky Riccitelli – easily the most phonetically pleasing name since Pingi Tala’apitaga – limped through the final minutes.

Auckland had three good chances to win lineouts deep in the Hawkes Bay red zone, and squandered the lot.

In the 82nd minute of the match, with one last throw at lineout time, Auckland buckled under the unbearable weight of a destiny they were oh so willing, but not yet ready, to fulfill. Perhaps it is worthwhile in the telling of this tale to surmise this: they were too young to realise what kind of a fight they had found themselves in. Exuberance can only get you so far. Experience counts for the rest of the trip.

The Bird Gang reigned supreme once more.

One try. Five points. That was all there was in it at the end. That was all that was required. That, and a desperate desire that has long been the defining characteristic of all the teams that have won this bloody thing – a desire that cannot be extinguished by any amount of cold spring rain. The Magpies know the history of the Ranfurly Shield, they are in the story, adding to the narrative. So many greats never got that chance.

The Magpies lined up behind the Shield at the end of the game and smiled for the cameras and for themselves. The Auckland team drifted past in the background, a desultory death march back to the sheds, back to a can of beer and a side order of what if? Next weekend they face Northland at Eden Park, not as Ranfurly Shield-holders.

Later, the Hawkes Bay team gathered in the breeze block changing rooms and posted pictures of themselves with the greatest prize of all. They have held on to the Ranfurly Shield through eleven challenges now – the most by any team since Canterbury stacked 14 wins together between 2004 and 2006. They sat there, spent, damaged, bleeding, tired. They sat there and drank their beer and smiled. They sat there as winners once more.

The Auckland team gathered what they had brought with them, and tossed their special jerseys into the gear bag – the ones with the words ‘Ranfurly Shield Challenge’ embroidered across the chest with Thursday’s date underneath. The 24th of September, 2015 was not the day these young princes of Auckland returned the Shield to its original Kingdom.

Instead they showered and changed and boarded a bus bound for Kennedy Park Resort, complete with its motel and villa accommodation and 92 powered camping sites. No matter what accommodation option the team chose, they could be rest assured each came “complete with all our onsite services for your dining and entertainment needs”, though what use the Auckland side had for a jumping pillow, pedal cars, and a karaoke machine is unclear.

It poured through the night. The creek beside Kennedy Park swelled in the deluge. The rain washed away the memories of a Ranfurly Shield game in Napier, on a Thursday night in September, and what memories were left were soon taken care of by the beer. The last time Auckland had the Shield was in 2007. The night they brought it home, Brent Ward and Isa Nacewa locked themselves to the beer keg, under the stands at Eden Park.

Eden Park stood empty the day after this game against Hawkes Bay, the famous turf freshly mowed and manicured, ready for Auckland’s next game against Northland. It could have been a Shield Game, but it won’t be now.

Not this year anyway.

Keep going!