Shield pride will always live for Bradley
A lifetime supporting Waikato had its crowning glory for the team's captain this year, writes Evan Pegden.
Alex Bradley remembers vividly sitting at the end of Eden Park behind the goalposts as a proud youngster, watching Waikato captain John Mitchell hold the Ranfurly Shield aloft in 1993.
Little did he know that 19 years later he would be doing the same at New Plymouth's Yarrow Stadium.
Waikato went into the October 3 challenge against Taranaki with a three-win, four-loss record in the ITM Cup and little chance of reaching the premiership semifinals after being beaten finalists for the previous two seasons.
But the stunning 46-10 victory that enabled Waikato to lift the Ranfurly Shield for the ninth time in its history, and the four-match winning run to complete the season that it triggered, including a successful defence of the Shield against Hawke's Bay, meant all that was forgotten for both players and fans.
The performance was inspired by that rich Shield history and Bradley's own memories of growing up supporting Waikato at both Shield challenges and defences, the latter at Hamilton's forerunner to Waikato Stadium, Rugby Park, dictated that it meant a huge amount to the big No 8.
"Growing up wanting to be a Waikato man, watching the games, going with my father over to the old Rugby Park and sitting in the terraces watching the old Waikato men playing, getting a bit of pride when we won games and knowing back then what the Log o' Wood was all about, it was great to have the opportunity, first, to go and play for it," Bradley said.
"But to go out on the field and for the boys to play the way they did that night, it's something I'll never forget.
"It was one of the best moments in my life really, apart from getting married and having my kids."
Not only was it Bradley's first crack at the Ranfurly Shield but so it was for everyone else in the Waikato team that Wednesday night, apart from midfield back Jackson Willison, who had been in the 2007 winning side that took it off North Harbour.
"We had spoken a lot during that week about the Shield and what it meant, not just to us as players, but to the coaches, to the managers, to past players and we had a couple [of guys] come in and talk to us about what it meant to them."
Bradley and his men also knew it meant a lot to the Waikato public and never for a moment believed the media claims from some parts of the country that the trophy didn't mean as much any more.
"Just having the opportunity to play for it was amazing."
So what happened in the buildup to the challenge that was different, the match coming just six days after beating Tasman in Hamilton?
"The week started off a little bit the same as most, but definitely more and more feeling got into it as [it] went on.
"But in saying that the guys stayed in their prep for that game pretty much under control - not getting too nervous.
"We were all nervous just before the game but I think the preparation for the game was great."
Bradley knew his team had to play a lot more positively with a lot more attacking rugby from the outset if they were to take the Shield from an in-form Taranaki side, by knocking the holders off their stride.
"I knew we had to go into that game playing our style of rugby.
"In previous games that season we'd let teams bring what they had to us and it sort of damaged us a little bit.
"We had to go out there and play our game and take it to them straight away, not give them a chance.
"Even running off at halftime with the lead at 27-3 I knew then the game wasn't won and we would still have to put a big battle in for the second half."
And Waikato did have to do a lot more defending in the second half, but Bradley rates the overall 80-minute performance as the best a Waikato team - that he has been part of - has played.
"To get the guys from the first kickoff hitting the rucks like they were, seeing them just putting their bodies on the line, it gets everyone up.
"The whole team just got stuck into it and that didn't stop right through till the last minute."
The players sensed 15-20 minutes into the game that everything was falling into place for them and they had rocked the Shield holders on to the back foot.
"But it wasn't probably until about halfway through the second half and we were setting down a scrum and I looked across at Craig and he was getting ready to go down in the scrum and I saw the look on his face and knew then that we had the game won.
"When you see a captain a bit upset like that, knowing things weren't going well [for them], it's a good feeling."
It took a while to sink in for the players just what they had achieved.
"We stayed down in Taranaki that night [the Shield tucked in beside Bradley in his bed with its own pillow]. And we came back the next day on the bus and met the public at the stadium, which was good, but even then it still wasn't real."
To have a week's grace, during which time a second-string team played Counties-Manukau away and won, enabled the enormity of the achievement to finally dawn on the players who had been involved in the victory at New Plymouth.
Waikato set out to win the Shield again in their only defence at the end of the season against Hawke's Bay, but Bradley admits it was a different feeling.
"I think knowing we were at home, we were going to have a huge crowd behind us.
"Hawke's Bay were in the position we were a couple of weeks earlier and had nothing to lose. But we knew if we just stuck to our guns and did what we needed to do we would pull it off and we played well."
So don't tell Bradley the Ranfurly Shield is dead.
"The tradition behind this thing - 110 years - means there is a lot of feeling, a lot of things have gone on with the shield, a lot of people have history with it and that will never be forgotten, while there's still history to come, a lot of games to play and a lot to be done with it hopefully."