Where is the 'spiritual' home of NZ rugby?

Last updated 05:00 14/02/2013
Liam Messam
LIAM MESSAM: A fine example of an All Black great, born out of Marlborough.

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As well as being in the centre of New Zealand, boasting the highest number of sun hours, and producing the world's finest sauvignon blanc, Marlborough can also rightly claim to be the 'spiritual' home of New Zealand rugby.

Many other contenders can be quickly discounted. Auckland is too corporate. Wellington has no tradition in the Cake Tin. Canterbury, sadly, has a make shift stadium. King Country is perhaps a contender. Hawkes Bay, just a possibility.

The first rugby match was reputedly played in Nelson, but it was 18-a-side, so how can that count?

To be the spiritual home we need to focus on tradition, passion and heart; punching above one's weight; the quality, not quantity of All Blacks; community support and the contribution to the local population.

Prior to its conversion to Tasman, Marlborough had for decades consistently performed well for its player resources. It reached its pinnacle in 1973 when the Red Devils brought the mighty Alex Wyllie-lead Canterbury to its knees, trouncing them to capture the Ranfurly Shield.

Marlborough then went on to hold the shield in to the next season, repelling several challengers in the process.

In the sevens form of the game, Marlborough also prospered, being selected in 1977 to represent New Zealand in Hong Kong.

I believe the 'soul' of New Zealand rugby is firmly entrenched in Blenheim. Look at the list of All Blacks who have come from Blenheim: Alan Sutherland, Jamie Joseph, Brian Ford, Charlie Fitzgerald, Jack Best, Ian Hammond, Phil Clarke.

Other All Blacks who hail from Marlborough include Anton Oliver and Leon McDonald. Still not convinced? How about Liam Messam, yes, born in Blenheim.

Even one of the most skilful players to ever pull on the All Black jersey, the legendry Fred Allen, played for Marlborough.

Added to Blenheim's mana as the spiritual home of New Zealand rugby is the home ground, Lansdowne Park.

For years, the Saturday afternoon routine remained unchanged. Purchase a match programme, stop by the shop for a topsy or pineapple lumps, then settle in to our seats in the stand and soak up the atmosphere.

The unmistakable aroma of wintergreen would float up from the dressing shed below us. The crunch of sprigs on the concrete floor reverberated around us. The tension would build.

For the next 80 minutes we would be totally immersed in the battle on the pitch. A contest that was a cross section of Marlborough's society. Truck drivers, doctors, freezing workers, sheep farmers, air force officers, all went at it, no quarter asked, no quarter given.

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The rugby was hard, but there was no need for yellow and red cards. Any player who strayed across the dirty line did so at considerable risk.

Competitors on Saturday were mates or neighbours or work colleagues on Monday. Such was the essence of Marlborough's rugby and wider public society.

If Steve Hansen ever finds himself in a position of needing someone for the All Black jersey, he could do well to patrol the touchlines of Marlborough's playing fields where he will sense the soul of New Zealand rugby.

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