For most of the 20th century it was said that ‘when Auckland rugby is strong, New Zealand rugby is strong’. Ten of the All Black team that won the first World Cup final in 1987 came from Auckland. Established in 1883, the Auckland Rugby Football Union consistently set the benchmark for other provincial teams. Its success made it one of the teams others liked to beat – and see beaten. Auckland currently plays in the professional ITM Cup. Along with Northland and North Harbour, it makes up the Blues Super Rugby franchise.
Auckland’s Eden Park, the official home of Auckland rugby since 1925 (and viewed by many as the home of New Zealand rugby) has seen many great performances by Auckland and the All Blacks. Both the inaugural Rugby World Cup final in 1987 and the 2011 final were played there.
Auckland won the National Provincial Championship 15 times between 1976 and 2005, and the Air New Zealand Cup in 2007. It has won more than a quarter of all Ranfurly Shield matches played, more than any other union.
Auckland versus Canterbury
Canterbury is the only team to have consistently challenged Auckland’s status as provincial top dog. Games between the two have the added intensity of north versus south and city versus country. Auckland has won 13 of their 21 Ranfurly Shield clashes and Canterbury seven, with one drawn. Auckland lifted the shield from Canterbury five times between 1971 and 2007.
Several of these games have been ‘classics’ or the ‘greatest’. The 1985 match in which Auckland ended Canterbury’s record-equalling tenure of 25 matches was dubbed the ‘Match of the Century’. A record Lancaster Park crowd of 52,000 saw Canterbury claw back a 24–0 half-time deficit to all but pull off one of the great shield comebacks. Having held on to win 28–23, Auckland proceeded to set a new benchmark with 61 consecutive defences over eight years. During this era Grant Fox established a new record for the most shield points (932), while John Kirwan ran in 44 tries.
In 1960 30,000 fans – a record for a midweek match – poured into Eden Park for the defence against Canterbury. There were no evening kick-offs under lights back then, so many Aucklanders must have pulled a ‘sickie’ that day. This classic shield encounter was worth it.
When the Auckland team bus was held up in traffic, a Canterbury official claimed that the holders had forfeited the shield. Instead, the match started 10 minutes late. The lead changed hands several times and with one minute to play, Canterbury led 18–14. Only a converted try (then worth five points) would keep the shield in Auckland. But Canterbury had the feed to a scrum and the opportunity to effectively end the match with a kick to touch. At this critical moment Colin Currie, Auckland’s hooker, won a tight-head against Canterbury’s test hooker Dennis Young. The ball came to first-five Mac Herewini, whose cross-kick found loose forward Waka Nathan. Known as the ‘Black Panther’, Nathan was once described by Colin Meads as a ‘most virile runner with the ball in hand’. After he ran 15 m to score under the posts, Mike Cormack’s conversion gave the ‘Aucks’ an improbable 19–18 victory.
Blue and white blacks
Sports fans can’t help but compare modern players with their predecessors, yet this exercise is difficult. In the professional era they play more matches and have greater exposure in the media. Over the years many Auckland representatives have made a significant contribution to both provincial and national rugby.
Auckland’s premier club rugby competition, the Gallaher Shield, is named in honour of Dave Gallaher, who played for Ponsonby and Auckland but is best remembered as captain of the legendary 1905–06 All Black ‘Originals’. Since his death from wounds received at Passchendaele in 1917, Gallaher has ‘acquired a mystique’, as the great rugby writer Terry McLean put it. His grave in a war cemetery in Belgium has become a shrine for many New Zealand travellers. Gallaher was one of 13 All Blacks to lose their lives in the war. His Ponsonby club has produced 44 All Blacks, the same number as Otago’s University club.
As a player and coach, Fred Allen gained a reputation for developing an attractive brand of running rugby. Born in Ōamaru, he played for Canterbury in 1939 but came to national attention as a leading figure in the NZEF ‘Kiwis’ Army team that toured Britain at the end of the war. Described by the famous rugby commentator Winston McCarthy as ‘absolutely immaculate in his football’, he debuted for the All Blacks after settling in Auckland in 1946. Allen captained the All Blacks in all of his 21 games in the black jersey. Following the 4–0 series loss in South Africa in 1949, Allen hung up his boots and turned to coaching. It was in this role that he truly stamped his mark on Auckland and New Zealand rugby. In the early 1960s Auckland became a dominant force thanks largely to his coaching. Higher honours followed and he became an All Black selector and then All Black coach in 1966. The All Blacks played attractive running rugby in winning all 14 tests in which he coached them. In June 2010 ‘the Needle’ became ‘Sir Fred’ when he was made a Knight Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit.
One of those who benefited from Allen’s coaching was the Auckland and All Black legend Wilson Whineray, the All Black captain from 1958 until 1965. The All Blacks lost only four of their 30 tests in this era. For Terry McLean, Whineray was New Zealand’s greatest captain. The prop was part of a formidable All Black pack that included Colin Meads, Kel Tremain and Ken Gray. A lineout move perfected by the All Blacks on the 1963–64 northern hemisphere tour was known as ‘Willie Away’ because it involved Whineray peeling away from the lineout to receive the ball.
Another Aucklander to make his mark as an All Black captain was Sean Fitzpatrick. As well as playing 154 games for Auckland, Fitzpatrick played a then-record 92 tests for the All Blacks between 1986 and 1997 – 51 of them as captain.
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