Regional rugby

Page 15 – Hawke's Bay rugby

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The Hawke’s Bay Rugby Football Union was established in 1884, making it the oldest provincial union outside the four main centres. For a good chunk of the 1920s and in the late 1960s Hawke’s Bay set the standard for provincial rugby in this country. The ‘Magpies’ have a proud Ranfurly Shield pedigree, with 56 successful defences by 2015. This ranks them third on the all-time list, behind only Auckland and Canterbury. Hawke’s Bay were key players during a remarkable four weeks in 2013 when the shield changed hands four times. Following Otago's surprise victory over Waikato, Hawke's Bay ended a 44-year shield drought nine days later with a gripping 20-19 win in Dunedin. The province had little time to savour the victory, losing 27-24 to Counties Manukau just six days later – the shortest tenure in shield history. Hawke’s Bay reclaimed the shield from Counties Manukau in 2014, winning 27–21 in Pukekohe. After 11 successful defences, Hawke’s Bay lost the shield to Waikato in the last challenge of 2015.

In 1997, shortly after the introduction of professional rugby, Hawke’s Bay merged with nearby Manawatu to form the Central Vikings with the goal of giving local players the chance to play in the first division of the NPC. The composite team won the 1998 second division title before the two unions reverted to their original structures. Hawke’s Bay currently plays in the professional ITM Cup, in which it has won the second-tier championship division in 2011 and 2015. Along with East Coast, Poverty Bay, Wanganui, Manawatu, Wairarapa-Bush, Horowhenua-Kapiti and Wellington, Hawke’s Bay is part of the Hurricanes Super Rugby franchise.

Among the nearly 50 men from the Bay who have played for the All Blacks are some of the greatest names in New Zealand rugby. They include the three Brownlie brothers and George Nepia in the 1920s, and 1960s star Kel Tremain. Neil Thimbleby played a record 158 games for Hawke’s Bay between 1959 and 1971. Jarrod Cunningham’s tally of 998 points between 1990 and 1998 remains a record for the Bay.

The ‘Magnificent Magpies’

Hawke’s Bay rugby is defined by two golden Ranfurly Shield eras: 1922–26 and 1967–69. In both periods the Bay became the benchmark for rugby in this country, and the 1920s side was truly something special. It scored 720 points in 24 successful defences and conceded just 204. Players such as the legendary George Nepia, Jimmy Mill, Bert Grenside, Jackie Blake and the mighty Brownlie brothers – Laurie, Cyril and Maurice – all wore the black and white of the Bay with distinction. Good as these players and their teammates were, much of the Bay’s success was due to the astute and formidable Norm McKenzie, Hawke’s Bay’s selector-coach during this golden run.

Norman McKenzie, one of five brothers who played first-class rugby, became a Hawke’s Bay selector in 1916. Along with his brothers Ted and Bert, he would play a key role in the controversial 1927 ‘Battle of Solway’.

Hawke’s Bay’s 19–9 victory over Wellington in their 1922 shield challenge came as a complete shock to the team from the capital. Nothing in Hawke’s Bay’s recent history suggested that the outcome would be anything other than a routine victory for Wellington. Little was known about the Bay team, which McKenzie had assembled after scouring the province for men with individual brilliance who could also become effective team players. Hawke’s Bay’s dream nearly turned into a nightmare within weeks. They held on 17–16 over Bay of Plenty only because the challengers failed to convert a last-minute try near the posts.

By 1926 Hawke’s Bay had assembled a remarkably strong squad. The arrival of Bert Cooke from Auckland and Lance Johnson from Wellington completed a backline so strong that even recent All Blacks of the calibre of Lui Paewai and Tommy Corkill couldn’t break into the team. Some of New Zealand rugby’s finest unions were dispatched with ease – Wellington 58–8, Auckland 41–11 and Wairarapa 77–14. There seemed no reason to think that the Bay’s run would end any time soon.

Over the summer of 1926–27 Hawke’s Bay was rocked by a number of departures. George Nepia moved to East Coast and Bert Cooke and ‘Bull’ Irvine left for Wairarapa. In the first challenge of the 1927 season Wairarapa, so convincingly defeated the season before, ended the Bay’s tenure with a hard-fought 15–11 win. Some expressed relief that Hawke’s Bay′s reign had finally ended. Even Norman McKenzie admitted that the shield needed to move to maintain its appeal. But not everyone in the Bay was so willing to accept the loss of a possession to which they had become accustomed. The opportunity for redemption came just a month later with a rematch in Masterton. A unique feature of this game was the involvement of the McKenzie family. Norman’s brother Ted was the Wairarapa coach and Bert McKenzie was the referee. Hawke’s Bay won the Battle of Solway 21–10 but Wairarapa kept the shield because Wattie Barclay was later ruled to have been ineligible to play on residential grounds. In the meantime the Bay ‘defended’ the shield twice in challenges that were expunged from the record.

Kel Tremain

Though there was a brief shield tenure in 1934, Bay supporters had to wait until 1966 for a rerun of the 1920s. After Waikato was defeated at the end of the season, shield fever gripped the province. Over the next three seasons street parades preceded 21 successful defences. As in the 1920s, success was due in no small part to the coach. Colin Le Quesne – ‘The Fuehrer’ – was a meticulous planner who had represented the Bay with some distinction during the 1930s. He had welded together a formidable team which contained many fine players who went on to represent their country. None stood out more than the captain, Kel Tremain.

At the time Tremain’s status in New Zealand rugby equalled that of Colin Meads. As an agricultural field cadet he studied at Massey and Lincoln agricultural colleges. So after debuting for Southland in 1957, Tremain represented Manawatu, Canterbury and Auckland before settling in Hawke’s Bay in 1962. He was a try-scoring machine from the side of the scrum. In 268 first-class matches he scored 136 tries, a record for a forward until Zinzan Brooke’s era in the 1980s and ‘90s.

Kel Tremain died in 1992 after a short illness, aged only 54. His place in New Zealand rugby is recognised by the annual award for the outstanding player of the season, which is named in his honour.

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How to cite this page

'Hawke's Bay rugby', URL: https://nzhistory.govt.nz/culture/regional-rugby/hawkes-bay, (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 27-Oct-2015

Community contributions

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Ian McGibbon

Posted: 25 Aug 2010

I recall attending the King Country challenge in 1969, a time when games were invariably played in mid-afternoon. A student at Victoria University of Wellington, I made a belated decision to hitchhike to Napier to see the game. My girlfriend and I headed out to Paekakariki on the unit and began hitching from there. Almost immediately we struck it lucky. A car stopped and the driver, a friendly Maori gentleman probably in his 40s, informed us he was heading to Napier --- and, it soon transpired, for the same reason. He was an avid King Country supporter, working for NZ Railways in Wellington. This all seemed too good to be true --- a timely and comfortable ride all the way to our destination! We hadn’t gone very far, however, before it became obvious that our driver wasn’t very experienced. Enquiries soon elicited the fact that he didn’t usually drive but had rented a car to go up and see the game. The erratic but not necessarily dangerous driving style certainly got our attention, and thinking of the Manawatu Gorge coming up I at last asked him if he would like me to drive some of the way. There was relief all round when he accepted with alacrity. I settled into the driver’s seat, and we proceeded to Napier, bantering with each other about the likely result. We parted company at the ground, and within a few minutes of the game starting Hawkeye was squawking as the Bay took a seemingly unassailable lead. I started to feel sorry for our companion on the trip up, spending so much of his hard earned cash to attend a game that had quickly turned sour for his team. But, of course, those feelings soon disappeared as King Country staged their fantastic rally in the second half, and the crowd got quieter and quieter as the possibility of losing the shield began to loom. The final outcome, a 19-16 victory for the Bay, was greeted with huge relief. My expectation of getting a ride back to Dannevirke, where we intended to try to get a lift out to my parents’ farm, with family members who would also be attending the game proved ill-founded. So we made our way back to the rental car. Our former companion soon arrived, both elated and disappointed at the outcome of the game. I drove us down to Dannevirke. He got back to Wellington without incident. I know this because I later ran into him one afternoon in the Thistle Inn and we spent a congenial couple of hours reliving the game over a few beers.