Regional rugby

Page 30 – Best year ever?

In his 2006 book, Provincial giants, Paul Neazor put forward his views on the greatest season enjoyed by each of New Zealand’s 27 provincial rugby unions (including Nelson Bays and Marlborough, but not Tasman). The list makes interesting reading. Do you agree with Neazor? Fill out the Community Contribution form below (or email [email protected]) with your views and join the debate about your province’s best-ever year.

Northland: 1950. The North Auckland side of 1950 beat Auckland home and away and won the Ranfurly Shield for the first time.

North Harbour: 1994. Canterbury were destroyed 59–27 to give Harbour a home NPC final against big brother from over the bridge. Auckland won a hard-fought match 22–16, but Harbour had come from nothing to the big time in less than 10 years.

Auckland: 1988. Given Auckland’s phenomenal success, Neazor compared picking Auckland’s best year to choosing ‘the nicest Rolls-Royce in the showroom.’ Try 1988: 17 wins from 17 games, an NPC title, the Ranfurly Shield and the South Pacific Championship (a forerunner of the Super Rugby competitions of the professional era).

Counties Manukau: 1979. Counties, the ‘thrill-a-minute boys for most of the 1970s’, finally lived up to their promise by winning the NPC. Their only defeat in the competition that year was a heart-breaking 11–9 loss to Auckland in a match that doubled as a challenge for the Ranfurly Shield. This trophy continued to elude the union until 2013.

Waikato: 1951. In 1951 Waikato was regarded as something of a rugby backwater. That changed when 17-year-old Don Clarke kicked the winning goal against North Auckland and Waikato lifted the Ranfurly Shield for the first time.

Thames Valley: 1988. Though Thames Valley have a ‘humble place in New Zealand rugby’, their third division champion team of 1988 won all seven matches in the competition, scoring 284 points and conceding just 36.

Bay of Plenty: 2004. The Bay won the inaugural NPC title in 1976, but Neazor plumped for 2004, when the province finally broke its Ranfurly Shield hoodoo with a thrilling 33–28 victory over Auckland.

King Country: 1965. There was an epic shield challenge in 1969 and promotion to the first division in 1991, but the 1965 team won all 11 matches. Nine of this team played for the Wanganui–King Country side that ran the touring Springboks close, losing 24–19.

Taranaki: 1958. The 1958 side defended the Log o’ Wood nine times, capturing the hearts of locals. On average 19,000 fans turned up for each shield defence in a season that a commemorative publication called The fabulous winter.

East Coast: 2001. The Coast’s run to the second division final was the feel-good rugby story of 2001. The never-say-die attitude of the Coasters saw them almost pull off one of the great comebacks in the final against Hawke’s Bay.

Poverty Bay: 1987. The third division championship was won in style, with seven wins from seven matches. The Bay averaged 34 points a game and Neazor described this selection as ‘not one of the more difficult’.

Hawke’s Bay: 1926. The 1926 Bay side ‘massacred powerful opponents in Shield matches, setting scoring records that lasted until the introduction of four-point tries nearly 50 years later’.

Wanganui: 1989. Winning all seven NPC matches by an average of 39 points to 10, the boys from the River City cruised to the third division title.

Manawatu: 1977. Though Manawatu won the NPC in 1980, Neazor chose the 1977 side which ended the season with seven defences of the Ranfurly Shield in 39 days.

Horowhenua-Kapiti: 1993. A third division title and the introduction of the precocious talent of local schoolboy Carlos Spencer to New Zealand rugby – not a bad way to celebrate the small union’s centenary.

Wairarapa-Bush: 1981. The Brian Lochore-coached side gained promotion to the first division by winning all nine NPC second division matches as well as tipping over first division sides Hawke’s Bay and Marlborough.

Wellington: 1920. Wellington put the Ranfurly Shield on the line at home and away. This was not just a case of ‘taking it to the provinces’: the shield was defended in Auckland and Otago before being lost in Southland in the 11th challenge of the season.

Nelson Bays: 1999. Warren Johnston’s last-gasp penalty gave his side a 14–13 victory over Bay of Plenty in the NPC second division final.

Marlborough: 1973. A lay-down misère. One of the greatest upsets in Ranfurly Shield history against Canterbury was followed by five successful defences. The Red Devils clocked up 12 wins, one loss and one draw.

Buller: 1949. Buller lost only once in a season that saw them come agonisingly close to winning the Ranfurly Shield from Otago, drawing a dramatic challenge 6-all.

West Coast: 1999. After years of struggling at the bottom of the NPC, West Coast topped the third division round robin, but lost a home semi-final to Poverty Bay.

Canterbury: 1983. As with Auckland, choosing Canterbury’s best-ever season is a tough ask. They were without peer in 1983, winning all 18 matches against domestic opponents and the Ranfurly Shield–NPC championship double.

Mid Canterbury: 1980. Unbeaten in the division two (South) championship, Mid Canterbury were defeated in the playoff by their northern counterparts, Waikato.

South Canterbury: 1961. Though South Canterbury has won the Ranfurly Shield twice, Neazor chose this season – mainly because of a controversial win over the touring French.

North Otago: 2002. After averaging one win a season in the first 21 years of the NPC, the Old Golds came right in their 75th jubilee year. Eleven wins from eleven games gave them the NPC third division title.

Otago: 1948. Otago set the benchmark for New Zealand rugby in the years after the Second World War. Among the 1948 team’s seven convincing Ranfurly Shield victories, Southland were dispatched 25–0 and Canterbury 31–0.

Southland: 1939. As well as four successful Ranfurly Shield defences, Southland won its first – and so far only – victory over Auckland in Auckland.

How to cite this page

'Best year ever?', URL:, (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 14-Dec-2015

Community contributions

5 comments have been posted about Best year ever?

What do you know?


Posted: 10 May 2020

Wairarapa Bush did well in 1980 but I believe 1985 was their best year ever coming 4th in the first division including an away win over Wellington 20-19 at Athletic park and a win at home over Canterbury.


Posted: 04 Oct 2016

I still believe Nelson's best season was in 2004. They had an unbeaten season, with their only blemish being a draw with Counties-Manukau. More over, their biggest rivals, Hawkes Bay, had arguably the better team before Rico Gear came along.


Posted: 01 Jun 2012

King Country's thrashing of a full strength Canterbury side at Te Kuiti in 1995 48 - 28 would go close to one of their best wins


Posted: 08 Jun 2011

Neazor makes a decent case for Wellington's best year being 1920, but I reckon 1981 was better. Clearly the best team in the country, with attacking talent to burn and solid forwards like Brian McGrattan, Murray Mexted and co, they won the NPC handily, defeated Scotland 19-15, and took the Shield off Waikato (never an easy task) on a sunny Hamilton day at the end of the season, 22-4 (a thrashing in those days). The team also supplied some of the crucial players in the All Blacks who defeated the Boks that year - Mexted who drove the ball forward at Eden Park which led to Gary Knight's try, Stu Wilson who ran in a couple of tries (one from a beautiful cutback run when playing at centre in the first test at Lancaster Park), and Hewson who kicked the winning penalty at Eden Park and laid off the pass that Wilson scored from (albeit also dropping the high ball that led to one of Ray Mordt's tries).


Posted: 08 Oct 2010

I would be interested to hear from any Poverty Bay fans about how the 1974 side compares with the 1987 third division championship side. Neazor described his selection of the '87 side as ‘not one of the more difficult’ in his book. Checking the 1974 results though I see Auckland was one of the 10 victories (out of 13 played) that season