The Southland Rugby Union represents many of the rural traditions that are seen as the backbone of grassroots rugby in this country. Its split from Otago in 1887 began one of New Zealand’s strongest interprovincial rugby rivalries. The two sides have played more games against each other than any other representative teams in New Zealand. The 2010 Ranfurly Shield challenge in which Southland retained the Log o’ Wood with a hard-fought 16–12 victory was the 232nd match between the two southern unions. Southland has had the better of recent fixtures but overall trails Otago in games between the two, with 80 victories compared with Otago’s 142. Ten matches have been drawn.
Headquartered at Invercargill’s Rugby Park, the Southland Stags play in the professional ITM Cup. Along with Otago and North Otago, Southland is part of the Highlanders Super Rugby franchise. They began the 2010 season as the holders of the Ranfurly Shield before losing it to Canterbury in the penultimate challenge of the season.
The Ranfurly Shield
It was an extremely confident Wellington side that took the Log o’ Wood on a South Island tour in 1920. In the 18 years since Lord Ranfurly presented the trophy, no South Island side had ever won a challenge. Wellington had already defended the shield in Hawera and Auckland when it decided to accept challenges in the south. After holding off South Canterbury and Otago, Wellington ran out onto Rugby Park for their 11th defence of the season, a number that has never been exceeded. A 48–12 drubbing by Auckland in 1906 made Southland the most heavily defeated challengers at the time. As is often the case, reputation counted for nothing and Southland lifted the trophy with a well-deserved 17–6 win. The next year Southland saw off Otago before taking the shield back to Wellington, who returned the favour by beating them.
Southland regained the shield in 1929 for a four-match tenure that included a 37–5 thrashing of Otago before they lost once more to Wellington. At the end of the 1935 season Otago won the shield from Canterbury. This began a remarkable sequence of 47 matches spanning 15 years in which the shield bounced backwards and forwards between Otago and Southland. Southland challenged Otago twice in 1938, winning the shield at the second attempt.
During the build-up to Manawatu’s challenge in August 1939, ‘Ashamed’ wrote to the Southland Times to complain that none of the Southland team had ‘as yet signed on for the territorials for the looming war’. Clouds of a different kind made their mark on the match. Manawatu travelled south for a game that is best remembered for the thick snow covering the ground, conditions ‘unique in the history of interprovincial rugby in New Zealand’.
The impact of the war on rugby around the country can be illustrated by comparing the Southland side of 1939 with that of 1946. In the final challenge of 1939, Southland defeated Ashburton County (Mid-Canterbury) 50–0, with Arthur Wesney scoring 20 points for Southland. Captain Wesney was killed two years later in North Africa. When Southland recommenced shield rugby in 1946 with a challenge from Otago (who else), only one member of the 1939 side was still available for selection. A somewhat predictable loss to Otago in the first defence of 1947 ended Southland’s most successful shield tenure of 11 defences.
Southland lost the shield at its first defence in 1959, then had to wait another 50 years to taste success again. The signs were there in 2008 when the Stags lost only 13–9 to Auckland at Eden Park. The drought was finally ended a year later when Canterbury was defeated 9–3. Southland began 2010 by seeing off challenges from two Heartland Championship teams, North Otago and Wanganui. Tight wins over old rivals Otago and Counties-Manukau were followed by a comfortable victory over North Harbour. Signs that something special was building after so long in the wilderness came when Auckland was defeated 9–6 at the end of a week in which the province suffered its most prolonged storm for decades. This was Southland’s first ever victory over Auckland in a Ranfurly Shield match, and their first win over the northerners for 39 years. The euphoria of victory over Auckland was short lived. Canterbury arrived in Invercargill soon after seeking revenge for their 2009 defeat. The red and blacks won 26-16 to take the shield back to Christchurch. Those predicting another 50-year wait for the Stags could scarcely believe it when Southland defeated Canterbury early in the 2011 to take the shield south again. A James Wilson drop-goal in the dying minutes was enough to secure a 23-19 victory and once more set off scenes of jubilation in Invercargill.
Invercargill fights back
In 1993 British Lions hooker Brian Moore ruffled more than a few southern feathers in a television documentary. After he likened Invercargill to fallout-ravaged Chernobyl, Invercargill Mayor Tim Shadbolt invited Moore to step into a boxing ring to fight for his city’s honour.
Southland rugby’s home ground has been on the same site through numerous incarnations for a century. It has seen many memorable inter-provincial matches and a number involving visiting international sides as well. Australian national and state sides have had a miserable time in Invercargill, losing on 13 occasions. The British Lions were defeated in 1950 and 1966.
Rugby Park was one of many grounds to experience the upheaval associated with the 1981 Springbok tour. The ground was surrounded with barbed wire to ensure that there was no repeat of the pitch invasion that had forced the cancellation of the match against Waikato. The police who also ringed the field were under strict orders to watch the crowd, not the game. The visitors won 22–6.
More than 50 Southlanders have made the All Blacks. Twenty-one of them attended Southland Boys’ High School, which has produced six All Black captains, more than any other school in the country. Southland’s first All Black, the great J.W. (‘Billy’) Stead, was a pupil at Southland Boys’. As vice-captain of the 1905 ‘Originals’ side that toured Great Britain, Stead was a first five-eighth of the highest quality and one of the ‘sharpest early thinkers on the game’. Frank Oliver and Leicester Rutledge were key figures in the first All Black team to complete a Grand Slam over the ‘Home Nations’ of Great Britain in 1978.
Southland rugby also boasts two double internationals. Jeff (‘Goldie’) Wilson played both rugby and one-day cricket for New Zealand in the 1990s and 2000s, as did Brian McKechnie in the 1970s and 1980s.
McKechnie featured in controversial incidents in both sports. In 1978 he kicked the winning penalty in the All Blacks’ 13–12 victory over Wales. The penalty was awarded after a lineout from which Andy Haden infamously dived. Welsh fans still complain bitterly about the penalty. Three years later McKechnie was an unwilling participant in one of the most highly charged moments in New Zealand sport. This time he was wearing the beige of the New Zealand one-day cricket team at the Melbourne Cricket Ground. It was McKechnie who faced Trevor Chappell’s infamous underarm delivery that ensured an Australian victory in one of the greatest of limited-over matches.
Simon Culhane scored a record 976 points for Southland between 1988 and 1998, as well as 150 for the All Blacks. Between 2000 and 2014 Jason Rutledge turned out for the Stags 131 times. Prop Clarke Dermody, an All Black in 2006, had an impeccable Southland pedigree – his father Gus and his uncles Gerald and Stuart all represented the province in the 1960s and ‘70s.
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