Shield stirs southern passions

Immortal Otago coach Vic Cavanagh would probably feel like an alien visitor were he to get the opportunity to travel forward through time to get a glimpse at modern rugby.

He would certainly marvel at the size and physical prowess of the modern professional — after, of course, learning both men and (gasp) women are now paid to play the game — and enjoy the sheer skills on display at the top level. He might lament the state of club rugby, and the wild variety of coloured boots sported by some players. And it is a reasonable assumption he would shed a silent tear at the sight of a blank wasteland where once his beloved Carisbrook stood.

One rugby scene at the weekend, however, would have been both familiar and pleasing to Cavanagh. How he, and others of a glorious era, would have enjoyed the sight of a young man wearing a blue jersey bedecked with a golden O (and, to the coach’s bemusement, sponsors’ logos), holding aloft a familiar wooden shield.

Cavanagh’s Otago team dominated the Ranfurly Shield like none had before and few have since, defending it 18 times between 1947 and 1950. The golden era actually started in 1935, when Otago beat Canterbury to capture the Log o’ Wood for the first time. Famously, the shield stayed south of the Waitaki River for 15 years, as Otago and Southland traded back and forth.

They were the days of morning parades before the walk to Carisbrook; the "Southland invasion" as special trains brought supporters to Dunedin from Invercargill; the ’Brook packed with heaving crowds.

Rugby has changed, as Cavanagh would discover. There is certainly a widespread feeling that the Ranfurly Shield "ain’t what it used to be", perhaps understandable now it belongs in a provincial competition that does not feature the elite players and which is played in front of a smattering of spectators.

But try telling the latest group of Otago shield heroes that New Zealand sport’s most coveted trophy no longer gets the heart racing. When replacement halfback Josh Renton kicked the ball dead in Hamilton on Saturday, the reaction from his Otago team-mates at sealing a 23-19 win over Waikato was telling. They knew, right then, what pure joy felt like.

Instead of bemoaning a supposed drop in status for the Ranfurly Shield, or the absence of the top players, perhaps we should take a more positive view of the situation. Maybe, if we think about it, this is actually the shield as it was meant to be: a bunch of club rugby players and products of local schools putting their bodies on the line for love, not money.

Five years ago, Otago finally brought an end to 56 years of hurt when it got its hands back on the shield, and the front page of the Otago Daily Times blared YES! next to a photo of fiercely triumphant captain Paul Grant, a product of South Otago. He has now been joined by 2018 captain Michael Collins, raised in Queenstown and educated at Otago Boys’ High School, the son of a former Otago Rugby Football Union board member. They are two men who know why this trophy is so special.

New Zealand Rugby has tinkered endlessly with what used to be known as the national provincial championship. Casual fans still find it difficult to track which team belongs in which division, question the absence of movement between the Mitre 10 Cup and the Heartland Championship, and wonder about the competition’s future in a bulging rugby calendar.

Happily, Otago has just reminded us that the magic of the Ranfurly Shield has not been lost.

In 2013, Otago held the shield for just nine days, but they were nine wonderful days as the team and union made an effort to take the shield around the province and get it into the hands of everyone from emotional former players to wide-eyed children.

Collins, coach Ben Herring and these Otago history-makers have timed their run to perfection. The Ranfurly Shield is "home" for the summer.

Comments

At least we have the opportunity to hold on to the shield for more than one week.