September 18 - 1976 First National Championship decided

When Bay of Plenty beat Hawkes Bay and Manawatu lost to Marlborough on September 18 1976 the first National Championship was decided. For Bay of Plenty and Manawatu went into those matches equal on top of the table with 15 points. Though some unions still had matches to play Bay of Plenty’s win left them on 17 points and in an unassailable position.

The presentation of the Rugby Cup is on the cover of the 1977 Almanack

The 1976 Points Table

A provincial championship was a long time coming in New Zealand. The first two provincial unions, Canterbury and Wellington, were established in 1879, and several more were formed in the 1880s. They played each regularly if they were neighbours, less often if not, in what were essentially “friendlies”.

From 1904 the Ranfurly Shield, a challenge trophy, was played for, and with great enthusiasm. There were and are other trophies played for by groups of union e g Seddon Shield, Hanan Shield and the Bruce Steel Cup and others are competed for by just two unions e g the Rundle Cup (Buller and West Coast). But for many inter provincial matches there was nothing but pride at stake.

A widespread move for a national rugby competition developed in the 1970s. Soccer had established a national club championship in 1970 which proved popular. Though there were instances of top clubs from different unions playing each other, rugby administrators felt that the difference in club competitions union to union was too great for a club championship to work. But, a provincial championship was a possibility.

With prominent Auckland administrator Barry Smith very much to the fore a proposal was taken to the 1974 NZRU annual meeting. Not everyone was enthusiastic, some concerned with the effect on club competitions, others the impact on the Ranfurly Shield, but a sub-committee of Bob Stuart (chairman, Peter Wild, Ron Don and Russ Thomas was set up to investigate further. This was done and at the 1975 annual meeting it was decided to have a competition with a first division of eleven teams, plus second divisions North Island (nine provinces) and South Island (six). The qualifiers for the first division were determined by studying results over the previous five seasons.

In the first year, 1976, a full round robin was played in each division, two points for a win, one for a draw. The format worked, though the results may have been skewed because the All Blacks were touring South Africa, impacting on some unions, not so much on others.

Inevitably, flaws were found and changes made in following years, including:

  • Semi finals and finals. There have been quarter finals as well.

  • Four points for a win, two for a draw.

  • Bonus points.

  • Division into two sections, currently Bunnings Cup (semi-professional) and Heartland Championship (amateur).

The changes since 1976 have been substantial but that first National Championship was a good start.