Shield fever just a passing thought
I've been trying to work out who actually cares about rugby's Ranfurly Shield these days.
Younger rugby followers, reared in the professional rugby era, seem generally to regard the shield as a quaint extra, nothing more.
Their parents, who remember the days when a big Ranfurly Shield game stopped the country, view with sadness what has happened to the famous Log o' Wood.
Taranaki held the shield for most of this season, but recently lost it to Waikato after a 46-10 drubbing.
Waikato have one defence to survive in 2012, against Hawke's Bay. It's of moderate interest to rugby statisticians and trainspotters, but otherwise the Ranfurly Shield doesn't really excite any more.
I remember as a youngster listening on my transistor radio to Wellington trying to wrest the shield off Hawke's Bay in 1967 and Canterbury in 1970.
Blair Furlong saved it for Hawke's Bay the first time with a last-minute dropped goal, and Fergie McCormick stepped up and did the same thing for Canterbury three years later. Both games were drawn, so the shield stayed put.
They were crushing results for Wellington rugby followers, at least as hard to stomach as an All Blacks defeat.
The Ranfurly Shield means comparatively little now, though a few dyed-in-the-wool rugby types will tell you differently.
I was in Christchurch when Canterbury challenged Taranaki for the shield last month. In the group of a dozen men I was with were some loyal Cantabrians who loved rugby. Yet they had only a passing interest in the shield game.
Where as 30 years ago they'd have been huddled around the television, desperately urging on their team, now they carried on chatting and every 25 minutes or so did a quick check on the score from New Plymouth.
When Taranaki won, there was no particular sadness, only a shrug.
Two things killed the shield. First was the supremacy of Canterbury, and more especially Auckland, in the 1980s and early 1990s. Auckland's reign lasted 61 matches!
The charm of the shield was that it went around the country - Northland, Hawke's Bay, South Canterbury, Marlborough.
Once it became the domain of one or two super-provinces, interest waned.
That process sped up when rugby went professional and the Super franchises became so dominant.
New Zealand rugby has evolved further. Now, leading players almost never appear in the national championship.
This means teams such as Southland and Taranaki have every chance of beating “Canterbury” or “Auckland”, except they're really beating Canterbury B or Auckland B.
Similarly, the Ranfurly Shield is being contested by the country's second-tier players. Games might be close, but only because the quality has been removed from the competition.
To anyone who treasures rugby history, that's sad.
Nostalgic rugby fans may hope Hawke's Bay beat Waikato next Saturday. They'll recall the Bay's two record shield reigns - in the 1920s with the Brownlie brothers, George Nepia and company, and in the 1960s with Kel Tremain, Ian MacRae, Bill Davis and the rest.
They'll say it would be nice if the shield went “home”.
Except it's not really the shield. Not like it used to be.
The Marlborough Express