Little rest for the valiant

Otago rugby captain Paul Grant lifted high the Ranfurly Shield in Hamilton last Friday night and, at the same time, sent Otago's spirits soaring.

Playing against the odds, and with a minority of possession and territory, Otago showed determination, guts and enough flair to defeat Waikato 26-19 and win the shield for the province for the first time since 1957.

By any measure, that was a very long time ago.

That was the year of New Zealand's last execution (Walter Bolton, Mount Eden prison, February 18), when Labour's Walter Nash became Prime Minister, when Janet Frame's first novel, Owls Do Cry, was published and when Auckland businessman Morris Yock trademarked the jandal.

Harold Macmillan became Prime Minister of Britain, Dwight D. Eishenhower was inaugurated for his second term as president of the United States and the Morris Oxford Series III Saloon car was rolled out.

Of course, the long drought is part of what makes the victory so extra special. Scarcity adds value, a basic principle in life as well as sport.

Such is the passing of the years that next Sunday will be the first opportunity for many ''Otago-ites'' to barrack for the blue and golds at a home Ranfurly Shield fixture.

Add in the underdog element, the undertone of redemption after the recent debacle of a near-bankrupt union on its knees and the previous rich Otago rugby history, and everything aligned to make Friday night's win taste ever so sweet.

While rugby is far from everyone's glass of Speight's, it is one of the few uniting institutions across Otago - from Clinton to Upper Clutha to Gimmerburn-Patearoa to Green Island.

Winning the shield under all these circumstances shows what sport can do. It can foster communal spirit and togetherness.

And while sport, when all is said and done, is far from a matter of life and death, it provides a distraction and a freedom from the personal, family and community concerns that can weigh on us all.

Hence, the joyously-hectic celebrations at Dunedin's airport on Saturday afternoon when more than 1000 fans turned out to give the team its much-deserved heroes' welcome home and when the time-honoured shield was passed around those same jubilant fans, to hold for those souvenir snapshots, to savour and to touch.

And those scenes were repeated in Forsyth Barr Stadium's Otago Daily Times Stand yesterday at a special celebration party when another big crowd turned out to revel in the new-found excitement of being the shield ''holders'' and to show support for a new generation of rugby stars.

This team - ''Mr Brown's Boys'', as they have already been dubbed - have achieved what so many great Otago players over 56 years - Tony Davies, Chris Laidlaw, Earle Kirton, Laurie Mains, Aaron Pene, David Latta, Jeff Wilson, Anton Oliver, Carl Hayman - could not.

They survived the late pressure, helping salve the pain of those narrow heart-breaking losses sprinkled through the more than five decades.

It is appropriate the first challenger, and we must hope not the last, is Hawkes Bay, a formidable opponent, which yesterday lost narrowly to Bay of Plenty.

Otago's affinity with the province of Hawkes Bay has been close for many years and the Otago teams of the great era of 1990s benefited from the likes of Taine Randell, John Timu and Josh Kronfeld. Hawkes Bay will hoe in as they attempt their share of the glory.

What was until Friday night an unheralded Otago team, will - now the weekend celebrations are over - have to come down to the realities of defending the Log o' Wood.

They will have to gird their loins, deepen their resolve and do battle all over again.

There is little rest for coach Brown and his valiant men.


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