OPINION: When the Stags roared
Southland’s 2009 Ranfurly Shield victory over Canterbury will forever be one of the highlights of my professional career.
It’s hard to believe that nearly 10 years have passed since the Stags beat Canterbury 9-3 at Lancaster Park (let’s just call it that for now) to end a 50-year Shield drought.
Personally, I was still a relatively young journo, even though I’d been working for the Southland Times for a decade at that stage.
The day we won the log of wood, October 22, was my 34th birthday. Our first child had been born the year before. I still thought I was going to be a sports reporter for the rest of my life. The death of print was a mythical boogeyman, not the glaring reality that it is now.
Lots of stuff has changed. Quake-ravaged Lancaster Stadium is now weeks away from being completely demolished. The Stags are enduring a record-setting losing streak.
But back then Southland rugby was enjoying a golden age, perhaps its most invigorating phase since the sides which dominated New Zealand rugby either side of the Second World War.
A generation of quality young local players had come through the system and stayed. Players came south and stayed. The union was aspirational – the goal was to be the strongest non-Super Rugby base union in the country. For a time, Southland even exceeded that, overtaking Otago to become the fourth-best union in the country.
There appeared to be a chemistry which ensured those Southland teams were greater than the sum of their parts. They were not stacked with All Blacks, or even frontline Super Rugby players for that matter.
They played a dogged style of rugby; but despite that the Stags were, for a time, the second favourite provincial team of many New Zealanders.
The summer that followed the 2009 winter was hurly-burly. There are a thousand Shield stories from that time. The first few days and weeks went by in a blur.
We quickly produced a small book to celebrate the win. An interesting sidenote – the decision had been made not to send a photographer up to Christchurch. The Press promised their shooter would take care of us. They didn’t, and the Times had to spend thousands on photos from an agency for the book.
I was desperate for Southland to beat Otago in the first full-blooded defence of 2010. I’d harboured a grudge against Otago rugby for a long time. I don’t really know why. No other game mattered.
It was a brutal encounter. Otago led 12-9 and there was a horrible feeling that they were going to break their own 53-year Shield drought. Then Otago flanker Eben Joubert, who was having a massive game, injured his shoulder when a scrum collapsed on him and had to go off. Jamie Mackintosh scored for Southland and the Shield was retained. Glory days.
The only thing better than one successful Shield defence is another, and another. It was a heck of a season.
There were six successful defences in all. A first-ever win in Hamilton. The snow which caused heartbreak for farmers and the ILT Stadium collapse, followed by an uplifting first win over Auckland since 1971.
Jason Rutledge joined father Leicester - the Stagfather – as a Southland centurion. In another era his form – that tackle on Aled de Malmanche in the 7-6 win over Waikato – would have been good enough to earn All Black selection.
It was a bruising campaign. Close finishes meant the starting 15 carried the bulk of the load. Southland had the same win/loss ratio as semifinalists Wellington but not enough bonus points to make the playoffs.
I don’t really want to go into the aftermath of that season. We broke the story of Rugby Southland’s financial crisis on New Year’s Day, 2011. I was at the Tuatapere Sports Day and it was all anyone wanted to talk about. I knew why, it felt like a kick in the guts.
I remember doing an interview on Radio Sport in the morning. The insinuation was that Southland had bought their Shield success, rather than earned it. It wasn’t true, but it was easy to see how cynics could paint it that way.
My abiding memory from that time, however, is what a truly powerful, unifying force sport can be.
The community came together around the Ranfurly Shield and Rugby Southland did a great job of sharing the Shield with the community.
The Shield is an enduring piece of New Zealand rugby silverware, but it suffers when it stays in one place for too long, and Southland helped revive the mana of the log of wood at a time when it really needed it.
Southland's rugby story has long been about aspiring to be something more than our resources should allow. We are the underdog, the perennial battler. Those who are still invested in the Stags get that.
Success is always hard-earned and well savored. As it was in 2009. As it will be again in the future.