Waikato puts the Ranfurly Shield on the line today and, as Tracey Cooper finds out, there's still plenty of passion for the old Log O' Wood yet.
The Waikato rugby team has already done better than the last time they held the Ranfurly Shield.
Simply by hanging on to perhaps the most famous sporting trophy in the country for more than a week, they've eclipsed their shocker from 2007 when they won it from North Harbour one weekend and lost it to Canterbury seven days later, matching Wellington for the shortest Ranfurly Shield tenure of all time.
It wasn't the first time Waikato had coughed it up straight after winning it, either.
In 1966, Waikato won it off Auckland in August and lost it to today's opponent, Hawke's Bay, at their first defence in September.
All up, nine times the holder of the Ranfurly Shield has handed it over to a new team after their first defence.
Let's not make it 10 today. People like Shane Hansen won't be very happy.
On a quiet Hamilton Tuesday, Hansen was among a handful of fans who turned up at Waikato Stadium to buy tickets for Saturday's game, and there it was, the Ranfurly Shield.
Presented by Lord Ranfurly, first played for in 1904, originally intended as a football trophy, it went on to become the most valued rugby prize in the country.
And in this world where security guards protect the Webb Ellis Cup and you can only get a photo next to a glass cabinet holding a replica, it's refreshing to be able to pick it up, lug it around, give it a poke and pose with it for a photo.
It really is the people's prize.
"I can't believe I'm holding this up," Hansen says as he hoists the Shield high for a photo.
"I've been coming to Waikato games since I was 15 or 16 and this is my first time holding it."
It's a heavy piece of English oak - about six or seven kilograms at a guess - with a solid brass hinge on the back to hold its simple pivot stand. Four bolts hold the sterling-silver Shield in place on the base and the wood has split in half at some stage and been repaired.
One of the small shields around the edge is missing - away being engraved, apparently. The images of players on the Shield itself are a bit battered and the engraving on some of the older shields around the edge is becoming worn.
But heck, it's the Ranfurly Shield and most rugby fans have strong Ranfurly Shield memories.
"I remember being here when Waikato were in the second division against Taranaki and we held the Shield," Hansen says.
That was in 1980 during Waikato's fourth tenure as Shield holders. That lasted eight defences before Wellington claimed it in 1981, a month after the planned match against the visiting Springboks was abandoned.
That year, 1981, wasn't a great one for Waikato rugby.
And before last week's upset 46-10 win over Taranaki which brought the Shield back to Hamilton for the ninth time, 2012 hadn't been a great year for Waikato rugby either.
Losses to Northland, Auckland, Wellington and Canterbury mixed with narrow and unconvincing wins against North Harbour, Bay of Plenty and Tasman, Waikato were dishing up rubbish on the field and in danger of being relegated from the top division of the ITM Cup.
But a successful defence of the Shield today would make for a very good year indeed, even if the team is out of the running to make the ITM Cup playoffs.
And despite dire predictions that the Shield is losing its lustre for rugby fans, there's no shortage of people willing to prove the doubters wrong.
On Monday, Wellington-based columnist Joseph Romanos wrote a piece that claimed passion for the Shield was a thing of the past. "It's of moderate interest to rugby statisticians and train-spotters, but otherwise, the Ranfurly Shield doesn't excite any more. The Ranfurly Shield means comparatively little now, though a few dyed-in-the-wool rugby types will tell you differently."
Clearly Romanos is simply miffed because the capital hasn't had much of a sniff of it of late.
And Waikato rugby does fairly well for dyed-in-the-wool rugby types.
People like Jenny Caulfield, who was there on Tuesday with grandson Archie.
She still rates the Shield as the pinnacle of provincial rugby and wants to ensure that regional passion is passed on to the next generation.
"I remember when I was his [Archie's] age when we had it and I had a photo, too," she says.
She had read Romanos' column and didn't think much of it.
"They reckoned the Log o' Wood was dying. No way.
"I remember as a youngster sitting on the sidelines while Mum and Dad were in the stands. We used to come up from Tokoroa for all the games. It's got such history. We had Don Clarke, and Ponty Reid, Foxy Bennett, John Mitchell."
Current Waikato skipper Alex Bradley is another who has a differing view to Romanos'.
"I read that and didn't agree with it. People say it means nothing to us younger ones. Well, we had people like Deon Muir, Stevie Gordon, Stormy McLeod talking to the boys and it puts that passion into them. I got the chance to take it home to Matamata and I took it to Bedford Park to the rugby club and the number of people who came down and got their photo with it was amazing."
Bradley's first memory of the Ranfurly Shield is one of the region's most famous - when John Mitchell lifted it high after Waikato ended Auckland's record tenure of 61 successful defences between 1985 and 1993.
It was a memorable Waikato team that won 17-6 at Eden Park: Mitchell, Warren Gatland, Ian Foster, Matthew Cooper and Duane Monkley - names synonymous with the region.
And the team they beat contained many All Black legends, such as Sean Fitzpatrick, Michael Jones, Zinzan and Robyn Brooke, John Kirwan, Vainga Tuigamala, Grant Fox and Olo Brown.
"I remember Waikato v Auckland up at Eden Park," Bradley says. "It was actually an end-of-year Gwynne Shield [under-55kg rep team] trip, I must have been about 11. My mother drove the bus. We sat down one end of Eden Park and I still remember the pride I had in the players even as a kid. I remember looking up to them, standing up proud at the end of the game. That's probably my biggest memory."
Waikato kept the Shield for five defences that time before handing it over to Canterbury in 1994.
By that stage, the Shield was in a fairly battered state and Canterbury lock Chris England, a talented woodworker, set about refurbishing it.
John Warren, from Christchurch company Warren Woodturners, where England did the work, says it was the first of several trips the Shield made to his workshops.
"It's still the original timber," he says. "We just resurfaced it. It was pretty shabby when we first got it."
He says it's no surprise the Shield takes such a battering and that adds to its rich history.
It was a bit of history John Parker was looking for when he got his opportunity to get his hands on the Shield on Tuesday. It took a while, but he finally found the inscription he was looking for: 1950, Wairarapa.
His dad, Keith, played in that team, when they took the Shield off Canterbury.
"They got a drop goal from halfway and won 3-0.
"They spent the entire trip home drinking beer out of the boot that kicked the winning goal."
Shield stories abound, ranging from players licking beer from it, wives being forced to share the marital bed with it and others that, if true, leave you in little doubt about the punishing life it's had.
Following today's game, it will go in for another refurbishment, if only to make room for more small shields around the edge, which carry the names of holders.
Adding the smaller shields has been done several times before. In 1951, when Waikato first claimed the Shield - beating North Auckland 6-3 - skipper Hugh McLaren lifted a prize with 17 small shields around the edge.
By 1981, when Waikato lost it to Wellington, it had 18. There were 22 when Waikato took it off Auckland in 1993 and there are now 29 and by next season, there'll be more again.
Among the small shields is one engraved: 1997 Waikato, 1998 Waikato, 1999 Waikato, commemorating the region's most successful Shield tenure, when its team claimed the trophy from Auckland - again - and repelled 21 challengers before losing to Canterbury - again.
It was another of the region's most memorable Shield-winning sides, skippered by Foster and featuring Deon Muir, Aaron Hopa - who died while diving in 1998 - Rhys Duggan, Todd Miller, Bruce Reihana, Scott McLeod, Matthew Cooper, Steve Gordon and Mark Cooksley.
Most of those players are provincial legends and some were used by the current squad to help motivate them ahead of last week's successful challenge.
Now it's their opportunity to write their names into the province's proud Shield history. Who knows? In years to come, names such as Alex Bradley, Trent Renata, Sam Christie, Tawera Kerr -Barlow and Romana Graham may be as revered as those who went before them.
The significance of today's game, and the province's proud Ranfurly Shield history, is not lost on Bradley. "This is probably one of the biggest opportunities we've got to create a bit of our own history."
Today's game against Hawke's Bay kicks off at 5.35pm at Waikato Stadium. A Mooloo Parade will be held from noon starting in Knox St and heading along Anglesea St to Willoughby Park (next to Waikato Stadium). The parade will be led by Waikato's two outstanding junior teams of 2012 - the Waikato Roller Mills Under-13 team and the Waikato Under-16 team. At 2pm Waikato Under-21s take on Canterbury Under-21s and at 3.40pm it's the Parliamentarians v Celebrities.
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