As Canterbury claimed their fifth consecutive national championship with victory in last Saturday’s ITM Cup final, debate began about where this current side sits in comparison to other great provincial teams in New Zealand Rugby’s rich history, with most commentators believing the question really boils down to how they compare to the Auckland side of the late 80’s, early 90’s.
That Auckland team was truly phenomenal. Beginning their historic reign in 1985 when they wrested the Ranfurly Shield from a Canterbury side that was themselves a highly accomplished team, they went on to defend the shield a record 61 times, holding it until 1993.
In the NPC, they were equally unrivalled, claiming four consecutive titles on two different occasions, between ’87 and ’90, and ’93 and ’96. On paper, they were a fantastic side, with almost no weak points. Across the space of a decade that boasted such legendary names as Sean Fitzpatrick, Olo Brown, Michael Jones, Zinzan and Robin Brooke, John Kirwan, Joe Stanley, Grant Fox and Carlos Spencer.
And while the silverware they claimed backs up their position in history, the way they won reinforces it further. Week in, week out, the Auckland side of the late 80’s – early 90’s thumped their opponents. In fact, they were so dominant that rugby in New Zealand became boringly, dangerously, predictable, a testament to the utter control they yielded over their competition.
Overall, I think in terms of their playing roster, and the way they so efficiently dispatched their opposition in such resounding fashion for most of a decade, that Auckland team cannot be matched.
But I do think the men in the famous red and black jersey surpass them in some areas, particularly when you look at their achievements, and the hurdles they’ve had to climb to get there.
When Auckland reigned supreme there was no Super Rugby competition, and no SANZAR agreement. Hence, the commitments the players faced were far less – test matches were less frequent, and were scheduled around the NPC, while the national competition, which acted as the countries’ premier tournament, was a priority for players.
Canterbury have won their five titles in a completely different era, when All Blacks are wrapped in cotton-wool and feature very sporadically, if at all, in the ITM Cup, while others take extended rests following the arduous Super Rugby calendar.
This should create more of a level playing field, with teams all forced to field locally-grown talent, yet Canterbury have still managed to prevail. This year alone they contested their entire campaign without the services of Dan Carter, Richie McCaw, Sam Whitelock, and Kieran Reid, to name just a few, whilst also reeling in the face of a chronic string of injuries.
Of course, there was also the earthquake, and while I’m sure the rest of the country is sick of hearing about it, the fact the Cantabrians managed to remain dominant, despite their home ground being obliterated, and the bulk of their players personally affected in one way or another, speaks volumes about the resolve and determination of the red and blacks.
Victory this season was a huge ask for two new coaches – Tabai Matson and Scott Robertson – who were standing squarely in the shadow of Rob Penney’s legacy. To get up and win, without so many of their top line players at their disposal, in a competition which is increasingly tight and evenly contested, points to something in the Canterbury system which sets it apart from all others – a winning culture, a level of professionalism which is currently unmatched, and a focus on the development of depth and talent within the wider squad.
Both sides are great in their own way, and I don’t really think it’s fair to give the nod to one or the other, but this current Canterbury side is certainly right up there as one of the best provincial teams we have ever seen. Taking a broader view, I think there can be no question that the Canterbury organisation, which encompasses the Crusaders and the ITM Cup side, and has been responsible for creating the depth of talent and the incredible culture, is second to none, and has taken professionalism in rugby to a whole new level in New Zealand.