The prospects of Brad Johnstone’s men losing the shield at its first defence were indeed extremely real. For after beating North Auckland in Whangarei, Auckland had to face Counties on Eden Park.
No other provincial match in New Zealand has stimulated as much interest as this. It was given a razzle-dazzle buildup that no other game has ever quite enjoyed. For the week preceding the match Auckland’s two daily newspapers were full of little else, and on the commercial radio stations there were all sorts of competitions and the two songs penned for both unions were played as if they were genuine chart- toppers.
It was billed as the provincial match of the century.
Whether that was totally fair to some of the great sides of the past fielded by the likes of Otago and Southland in their border clashes of the 30s and 40s, or other giants from unions like Hawke’s Bay, Canterbury and even Auckland itself, is another matter. The match, in fact, was unique. For the first time a New Zealand provincial season had, in effect, a grand final, a champion of champions playoff in the truest sense. For while Auckland held the Ranfurly Shield, Counties, a provincial high flier for many years, was now the official national champion, having won the previous nine matches it had had during the season in the first division system which had now been operating since 1976. If it could beat Auckland for the shield (and its chances were rated high, for in recent years it had a definite edge over the boys from the big smoke) it would complete for the season a magnificent, unprecedented double.
As well the match had a true local derby flavor, something like the spirit which must prevail whenever great clubs of British soccer meet, clubs from the same city like Manchester’s United and City, Glasgow Celtic and Rangers or the Merseyside’s Liverpool and Everton. Counties is a union which is virtually part of greater metropolitan Auckland. It was formed in 1955 from old sub unions of South Auckland which were under the auspices of the Auckland unions. Its headquarters were in the market-gardening borough of Pukekohe nearly 50km from the downtown Auckland city, but its boundaries stretch into the Auckland urban sprawl round heavily populated Papakura and Manurewa. Many of those, in fact, who work in the shops and offices of Queen Street actually live within the Counties union and their allegiance to it is unstinting.
There was, too, a certain charisma to the Counties side. It played an attractive brand of rugby and among the sides who had been thrashed by it in recent years had been both Wellington and Canterbury on their home grounds at Athletic and Lancaster Parks Exemplifying that charisma was Counties’ selector coach Hiwi Tauroa, a quiet, cultured man then in his final term as headmaster of Tuakau College. Tauroa had played representative rugby in Auckland, Manawatu and Taranaki in the 1950s and had played for New Zealand Universities. But he was far removed from the New Zealand rugby stereotype. He did not drink alcohol and when he spoke it was without hysterics and with none of the oaths, profanities and obscenities so many other coaches employ so fluently.
So on September 29 a crowd of 50,000, almost divided equally in their support for each side, swarmed into Eden Park. The weather was fine, the turf was immaculate and this beautifully groomed arena was a picture. The atmosphere throbbed, becoming even more electric with the antics of members from each union’s supporters club. Overall the crowd was well behaved, though there were some who let their loutishness get the better of them. One or two beer cans were used as missiles and an Auckland supporter gambolling round the ground dressed in a Loosehead Len costume and mask was brought to the ground when a little man wearing a Counties uniform dived at his feet. That was greeted with merriment but the man in the Loosehead gear didn’t share the mirth. Wires from the mask cut into his face as he fell to the ground.
Judged in the purist sense, the match itself was not a paragon of all rugby virtues. Perhaps because of the buildup both sides were gripped by a tension and the first half, especially, was studded with errors. But the occasion was to be marked by high drama in the second spell, with Auckland coming from a seemingly hopeless position of defeat to snatch victory over the final quarter. Its comeback ranks with the most sensational in shield history, comparable to those of Otago against Auckland in 1947 and of Canterbury against Otago in 1954.
At halftime Counties had led 3-0 as a result of a Mark Codlin penalty. At this stage it seemed that the shield as far as Auckland was concerned was as good as won. For in the first spell Counties had enjoyed the advantages of a stiff southerly wind. And not only had it been unable to use it to put sufficient points on the board, but it had also suffered the severe blow of losing its renowned centre Bruce Robertson with a serious knee injury after only 10 minutes.
When the teams changed round it seemed that the telling factor would be Auckland’s excellent pack which just before halftime had offered plenty of encouraging signs. In the opening minutes of the second spell it looked as if it would continue where it had left off. But then came one of the match’s most dramatic passages.
Auckland was attacking furiously when the fine Counties halfback, Mark Codlin broke round a maul, on the short side. He pushed off Auckland’s first-five Harris and thumped a long kick downfield. Auckland fullback Farrell failed to control the bouncing ball and it was fielded by the fast following Counties left winger Paul Reilly. He sent flanker Hank Habraken galloping for the line. Auckland centre Tim Twigden came back fast on cover but inadvertently referee Bob Francis obstructed his path and Habraken was able to step inside his attempted tackle and score handy to the posts.
Codlin’s simple conversion made it 9-nil and the game was now in its most critical period. Habraken’s try, coming as it did so much against the run of play, was a shattering psychological blow, a fact confirmed by many of the Auckland players. For perhaps a quarter hour afterwards Auckland looked to be vulnerable and had Counties managed another score at this time there is no doubt the game would have been all over. An illustration of the risk Auckland was at was the high proportion of mistakes it began to make. One who was especially frail was Farrell, who now looked but a shadow of the composed figure who had taken so many high kicks from the Counties players with such calm in the first spell. But even when trailing 9-nil the Auckland players remained confident. “Apart from the try Counties scored we were in control of the second spell,” skipper Johnstone said. “The atmosphere among our players was electric. You could just feel something was going to happen.” And flanker Stu Conn made a similar point. “We knew we only had to get down there again and re-establish our control,” he said.
The pressure went on and, as they had done against Manawatu in their shield challenge of 1977, the Counties players cracked under it again. And sadly one of the culprits was again 1973 test fullback, Bob Lendrum, whose later blunder had been so costly against Manawatu. On this occasion Lendrum started putting crucial kicks out on the full. With 15 minutes left Auckland was still not on the board, but by then the pressure was beginning to tell. From a scrum, inside backs Dunn and Harris moved the ball, second- five Mike Mills half gapped and timed his pass to perfection to put the flying Twigden into the gap. Robertson wasn’t there, significantly, to match Twigden’s legs and he spurted into the clear for the try. Counties 9, Auckland 4.
Now Auckland had the sniff of victory at last. In the 70th minute Dunn kicked high and Lendrum made another error, fumbling the ball for Auckland to force a five metre serum. Dunn and Harris moved blind and Harris’ wild pass went over the head of Bryan Williams. But there on the outside was Farrell and in atonement for his earlier lapses he grasped the ball and triumphantly made the corner, Counties 9, Auckland 8.
So fired up was Auckland now that it seemed only a matter of time before it had the lead and indeed it came with six minutes still to run . . . from yet another Counties error. From just outside the 22 metre mark Dunn kicked high toward the Counties line, where the ball was fielded by the No. 8 Allan Dawson. From the stand it seemed to 50,000 now hysterical souls that Dawson had no option. He had to clear the ball smartly to touch. But he chose to run, a senseless decision, for he had no one who could run off him in launching a counter attack. Aucklanders Williams and flanker Ramsay quickly had him in crunching tackles and in the resulting ruck Counties first-five Morris was penalised for using his hand. From straight in front of the posts Dunn landed the goal and it was Auckland 11, Counties 9.
In the next few minutes were seen the two faces of Ranfurly Shield rugby. . . victory and jubilation on the part of Auckland. “What a way to win! What a finish!” said the delighted Auckland selector-coach Bryan Craies. “That’s what you call a real team. Boy, they have guts.” And in the Auckland dressing room Craies hugged his men. They shouted and clenched their hands in joy. But for Counties it was defeat and disappointment. Afterwards its dressing room, by contrast to Auckland’s, was like a funeral parlour. Tauroa and his skipper Andy Dalton sat together silent and with heads bowed. “We made the mistakes and paid for them,” Tauroa told reporters. “Auckland had the better of the game overall, especially in the second half.” And Dalton agreed: “Even when we were leading 9-0 midway through the second spell I wasn’t confident we would win. I knew it would be tough and that’s exactly how it was.”
Yet even in the sombre grief of defeat there was cause for congratulations to the Counties men, too. Just 12 months before it had seemed to most in New Zealand rugby that the Ranfurly Shield, if not dead, was in an advanced moribund state wounded by the self interest of the officials of one particular union. But, in conjunction with their Auckland opponents, the men of Counties had brilliantly restored prestige to the shield in a manner no one could really have anticipated.
From “SHIELD FEVER” by Lindsay Knight. Published 1980 by Rugby Press. P. 272-277.