Super 12 rugby, the professional game, kicked off on March 1st 1996 in Palmerston North before a big and expectant crowd. They saw an exciting game that lived up to the pre match hype and suggested that the new competition would be a success.
“The First Year — 1996
New Zealanders had long known about the supremacy of Auckland rugby. While the Blues, or Auckland Blues as they were known in that first year, wasn’t strictly the Auckland provincial side, their story of success had a familiar tune to it as national supremacy was exchanged for triumph over the bottom half of the globe. Not that the inaugural Super 12 champions were to have it all their own way.
‘We thought at the start, when we lined ourselves up against all of the other sides in the competition, that we had a good team,’ Blues captain Zinzan Brooke recalled. ‘We did, but we had to play what seemed like Test matches every week for 13 weeks to prove it.’
If the Blues had any doubts as to what was ahead of them, they were removed on the opening night of competition where they had to fight all of the way to fend off the Hurricanes 36-28 at Palmerston North. Although the visitors scored five tries to the solitary five-pointer by the Hurricanes’ Alama leremia — which was, nonetheless, the first try ever scored in Super 12 — the accurate boot of Taranaki first five-eight Jamie Cameron kept his side in the hunt until shortly before the final whistle. The Hurricane’s performance was a big boost for the morale of the patchwork side, which quickly gathered a big following and played some attractive rugby, even though the campaign ultimately yielded only three wins.
We were literally the League of Nations that first year, Humcanes coach Frank Olwer said. We had players from all over the shop, eight provinces in all, and none of us really knew what we were doing because the whole thing was new to everybody. Still, those guys were a bloody good bunch to deal with and to coach. For a lot of those players, the Hurricanes had given them a lifeline. They’d come to us on the draft because they weren’t wanted anywhere else. As a result of that, they’d been given ii chance they didn’t think they’d get; and so they all pitched in. It started that first night where we gave the Blues a bit of a go.’
As a result of the rushed nature of the organisation in preparation for the first season, matches weren’t played uniformly across weekends as they were from 1997. This led to some teams being forced to back up just four days after a previous match. It also created the far-from-ideal situation where the Chiefs and Crusaders finished their inaugural programmes while Transvaal and the Blues still had two matches to play. This had ramifications for the Chiefs who had to keep their squad on notice in case they squeaked into the semi-finals — they didn’t.”
Auckland Blues 36. Blowers, Clarke, Tonu’u, Spencer, Dowd tries. Cooper 3 pen., Z Brooke con.
Wellington Hurricanes 28. Ieremia try. Cameron 7 pen. Con.
From: “Ten Years of Super 12” by Matt McIlraith. Published 2005 by Hachette Livre NZ Ltd. P. 36-7.
There was surprise expressed in the pressbox at the game and periodically afterwards, particularly from Wellingtonians, that the first match in such a high profile tournament was being played in a provincial rather than a main centre.
The reason that Palmerston North was the venue may be that since 1989 Palmerston North had hosted the National Sevens tournament in early March each year. These tournaments were attended by the NZRU hierarchy. In view of “the rushed nature of the organization” referred to above it may have seemed to the NZRU that playing the match at a venue already preparing for a major rugby event (the Sevens were held in Palmerston North on the two days following the Super 12 opener) was a good option.
Though there would have been a far bigger crowd at some other grounds, Palmerston North, Manawatu and surrounding districts still did the occasion proud. The ground was full, the atmosphere electric, helped by a genuinely stirring haka by a combined party from Linton Camp and Hato Paora College, and the rugby matched the occasion.