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Regional rugby

Page 7 – Counties Manukau rugby

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A South Auckland rugby sub-union affiliated to the Auckland union was established in 1926. In 1955 South Auckland Counties was formed with full union status. The name was shortened to Counties the following year and in 1996 it became the Counties Manukau Rugby Football Union. Now known as the Steelers (a reference to the Glenbrook steel mill near Waiuku), Counties established a reputation for playing fast running rugby. The All Black winger (and record-holder for the most World Cup tries) Jonah Lomu was one of a number of great players to grace the Counties backline in the 1990s.

Counties Manukau currently plays in the professional ITM Cup. Along with Waikato, Thames Valley, Bay of Plenty, King Country and Taranaki, Counties Manukau is part of the Chiefs Super Rugby franchise.

Great moments in Counties Manukau rugby

After finishing runners-up twice in the first few years of the competition, Counties won the National Provincial Championship in 1979. In 2012, Counties won the second-tier ITM Championship and was promoted to the Premiership, which is contested by the top seven provincial teams. The coveted Ranfurly Shield proved more elusive.

In 1979 Counties lost 11–9 to Auckland, starting a sequence of agonisingly close shield attempts. In 1981 Counties led near the end of the challenge against Waikato only to see Waikato kick two late, controversial penalties to retain the shield with a 20-all draw. Lightning struck twice the following year against Canterbury. This was a winner-takes-all affair, with both the NPC and the shield on the line. For the second time in two years, Counties held a narrow lead with only minutes remaining. When Robert Kururangi intercepted a Canterbury pass, he had a clear run to the line and for a moment it seemed the long wait was over. Then Otago referee Kerry Henderson broke the hearts of Counties players and fans by (rather dubiously) ruling Kururangi offside. Robbie Deans kicked the penalty to retain the shield with a 15-all draw. Canterbury then swept all before them in a record-equalling 25-match tenure that would stretch to 1985.

Bad luck came in threes for Counties. In 1985 they took on the powerful Auckland team that had recently ended Canterbury’s long reign as shield-holders. Auckland won 12–9, but the talking point of the game was the role of Auckland skipper Andy Haden in persuading referee Reilly of Wellington not to award what appeared to be a legitimate try by Counties’ Dave Trombik. Auckland was just two games into a record 61-game tenure.

Following some lean years (including a stint in the second division) Counties enjoyed a revival in 1996–97 when they made successive NPC finals, losing to Auckland and Canterbury respectively. A tough forward pack led by Errol Brain, Jim Coe, Glen Marsh and Junior Paramore was complemented by one of the best backlines in provincial rugby, which featured Tony Marsh (who subsequently played 21 times for France), Jonah Lomu and Joeli Vidiri. In the 1997 semi-final Counties found themselves down 33-9 against Waikato in Hamilton. Confident of hosting the final against Canterbury, the ground announcer started advertising ticket sales. After one of the greatest comebacks in NPC history, Counties won 43–40.

Counties finally threw off their Ranfurly Shield 'bridesmaid' tag in September 2013 with a 27-24, come-from-behind victory over Hawke's Bay in Napier. The shield had changed hands four times in four weeks, with Counties’ victory condemning Hawke's Bay to the shortest tenure in shield history. After six successful defences, Counties relinquished the shield to Hawke’s Bay in August 2014.

Great players

Alan Dawson, with 201 games between 1976 and 1989, has played more matches for Counties than anyone else. In four prolific seasons between 1993 and 1996, Danny Love scored a record 698 points for the union. Counties fans will always maintain that local stalwarts such as Errol Brain and Jim Coe deserved higher honours. Andy Dalton captained Counties when they were at their peak. His leadership qualities were recognised when he assumed the All Black captaincy in 1981 for the controversial home series against the Springboks. But for a training injury he would have become the first captain to lift the World Cup following New Zealand’s victory over France in the 1987 final.

The ‘elegant and gifted’ centre Bruce Robertson is one of Counties’ most respected All Blacks. Between 1972 and 1981 Robertson played 102 games for the national team, including 34 tests. His form was particularly outstanding on the 1976 tour of South Africa, which made a profound impact on him as both a player and a person. In the decisive fourth test, which the All Blacks lost 15–14, Robertson was denied an almost certain try when he was taken out of play while attempting to regather a chip kick. The standard of refereeing on this tour left a bad taste in the mouths of many of the tourists. Robertson was also disturbed by what he saw of the apartheid system. His abhorrence of this racial policy saw him emulate test captain Graham Mourie by making himself unavailable to play against the 1981 Springboks. Robertson’s All Black career ended when he played against Scotland at Eden Park shortly before the South Africans arrived in the country.

Jonah Lomu (1975-2015) made his first-class debut for Counties in 1994 and played 28 times for the Steelers before transferring to Wellington. He played 73 times (63 tests) for the All Blacks between 1994 and 2002, when illness ended his international career at the age of 27.  Lomu became the most instantly recognisable face in world rugby and the code’s greatest drawcard. The English captain, Will Carling, called him ‘a freak’ following his stand-out performances at the 1995 World Cup in South Africa. He scored seven tries in the five matches he played at the tournament, including four in the 45–29 defeat of England in a semi-final. This was one of the greatest individual performances in World Cup history. The moment he ran through England fullback Mike Catt to score a try remains one of the enduring images of New Zealand (and world) rugby. Lomu was both the youngest player to appear in a World Cup final (aged 20) and the all-time top try-scorer at World Cup tournaments, with 15. His impact on world rugby was recognised with his induction into the International Rugby Hall of Fame in 2007.

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How to cite this page

Counties Manukau rugby, URL:, (Manatū Taonga — Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated