Wayne ‘Buck’ Shelford has a plan to rejuvenate the Ranfurly Shield.
It is somewhat radical and it will not find favour with the Otago Razorbacks, who won the venerable Log o’ Wood in audacious style last month in Hamilton.
“I’ve talked to a lot of people about this. I have watched the Ranfurly Shield matches for the last few years and I think it’s lost its lustre under the professional model,” says the former All Blacks captain.
“If you are the holder, great, you can do something with it, but for everyone else, it’s almost a non-entity. Most don’t get an opportunity. They are mostly worried about finding their Mitre 10 Cup Premiership or Championship positions.
“My idea is to take it away from the professionals, or semi-pros, and let the amateurs play for the Ranfurly Shield. That’s every provincial union in New Zealand. So Auckland could play North Harbour with completely amateur teams. The Shield was given to the amateurs (in 1902, though not contested until 1904). It wasn’t given to the pro-amateurs. The pros have got their system and their money, whereas really the amateurs don’t have anything.”
As it stands, there are generally seven Ranfurly Shield challenges per season, five mandatory clashes during the Mitre 10 Cup at the holder’s home venue, and two in July/August against two Heartland Championship provinces, usually the Meads Cup and Lochore Cup champions, Hence, Wanganui has had several recent cracks at the Shield.
The whole course of Shield history could have dramatically shifted had second division Bay of Plenty managed to hold on against a fast-finishing Auckland at Eden Park in 1996. Alas for the Log o’ Wood, Auckland roared home from an 11-29 deficit and Matt Carrington scored and converted for the 30-29 victory, thus breaking Steamers’ hearts. Had they hung on, the Shield might still be played among the Heartland unions to this day.
Shelford envisages an FA Cup-style knockout, starting with all 26 provinces, which is 13 matches. It would be played over five weekends, perhaps part way through the club season in May/June. There would be a bye in the second or third round, which would be “the luck of the draw.” All the Mitre 10 Cup provinces could, in theory, be drawn against each other.
So no province would hold the Shield until it emerged victorious at the end of the five weeks, after the final. There could be scope for midweek or Sunday games, so as not to interfere too heavily with club rugby. Provinces would need to dip into their club and Second XV or Colts stocks, as no contracted player would be eligible.
“I reckon there would be a lot of following for it,” says Shelford.
Shelford never tasted Shield success as a player or coach. He had left Auckland before that union won the Shield in 1985, and his beloved North Harbour finally got its hands on it in 2006, well after his playing and coaching days.
He is frustrated that the bulk of resourcing and media coverage – especially in his wider Auckland region – goes to the elite level. Rugby writers such as Lindsay Knight kept the history of the Shield to the fore until relatively recently.
“Club rugby, for example, is being left out of media coverage. Heartland rugby, nothing up here. There is nothing for the amateurs to read in the paper on a Monday morning anymore, which is sad,” says Shelford. Some pockets of New Zealand media still place importance on club, schools, provincial and Shield rugby – the Otago Daily Times, for instance – but that number is dwindling.
Shelford is right to say the Shield has lost some its lustre. While the players of today still get a kick out of lifting it, it is some 42 years since the inception of the NPC, which gave more meaning to the fixtures list, but also removed the Shield as being the unchallenged focal point of the provincial season.
Here is an alternative solution. Over to the powers-that-be.
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