Shield fever hits Otago as team returns home
Their conquering heroes returned to a welcome 56 years in the making.
Olwyn Gray was there, in among the young and old, as more than a 1000-strong blue-and-gold clad throng overwhelmed Dunedin's modest airport, with their relentless "Otaaaagoo" chant and banners for a week-long party in the home city of coach Tony Brown.
Gray was with his father at Carisbrook when Otago last held the Ranfurly Shield, way back in 1957.
And he was there when a beaming Brown, captain Paul Grant, and the rest of the team who conquered Waikato on Friday night returned the shield to a city that has not seen it in six decades.
"I was 10, and my father took a suitcase with two peters of beer in it to the game, and I was with him on the terrace," Gray said, eyes shining.
The airport was awash with emotion as Grant holding the log of wood high above his head before being swamped by the crowd.
The shield was passed around the team as players swarmed them for photos and a touch of rugby's domestic Holy Grail.
"It's the shield mate, I've never seen it," said Dean Ohaia, wiping his eyes. "I always wanted to see it and touch it, and I just had to grab a hold of it and give it a kiss. It means a hell of a lot." Another fan, preferring to give her name only as Ngaire, said she could also remember the last time Otago clinched a coveted shield win.
"I wasn't at the airport when that team arrived," she said. "But they had a ticket-tape parade."
Dunedin's mayor, Dave Cull, was among the throng, despite missing the Waikato game because of other commitments. He said he "got a surprise" when he got home on Friday night and checked his phone and emails.
"I had about 150 texts and emails telling me about the win. I'm ecstatic, proud," he said. "This has restored pride in Otago rugby."
Former Otago stalwart and All Blacks great Jeff Wilson said he couldn't bring himself to open a celebratory Speight's beer until the final whistle, after the blue-and-golds held out Waikato 26-19, with a grim last stand during the final minutes.
"Through all the things Otago rugby has been through, the failed challenges, and particularly what they've faced in recent times, it's testament to the organisation and particularly ‘Browny' that they've been able to put together a team that has tied its roots to Otago rugby," said Wilson. "The way they played was so typical of great Otago teams.
"They had to defend so much in the second half.
"The moment the final whistle went the texts started flying and the banter was there, and you knew so many Otago players would have been watching. It wasn't until that final whistle that I actually cracked open a Speight's in celebration because you were just waiting for it to be snatched away from them again, as it had been so many times before."
Coach Brown confirmed there would definitely be a party at "Tony Brown's place" to celebrate. The city's roofed stadium is hosting celebrations for fans today. The arrival of the shield is a huge boost to the southern province after more than a year of economic uncertainty, and is the feelgood Kiwi rugby story of the year. But it could be shortlived.
Otago's first defence will be against Hawke's Bay in Dunedin next Sunday.
Hawke's Bay have a famed history in the shield as three-time winners, but they've not held it since 1969.
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