It has been one heck of a week for rugby fans in the southern New Zealand province of Otago. After claiming the Ranfurly Shield for the first time since 1957, the province has well and truly caught a dosage of Shield Fever, with anyone and everyone wanting to join in on the celebrations.
Last Friday night's 26-19 win over Waikato might mean more to Otago than most other regions, simply by virtue of the numerous close calls in Shield Challenges over the years. To finally win one has left the province in a state of euphoria that it has not experienced since the team won the NPC in 1998.
Everyone in Otago has their Shield heartbreak story. Perhaps the most common one is that of the 1994 challenge against Canterbury, where after comprehensively beating their archrivals earlier in the season, Otago went on to lose the challenge 22-20 following a late Canterbury penalty goal.
Younger fans may remember the heartache of the 2000 and 2002 challenges (both against Canterbury and both last-minute losses) as well as the 2010 challenge against Southland and the controversial Jamie Mackintosh try.
Older fans will recall close calls—as well as a few drubbings—of earlier years.
Fifty-six years is a long time between drinks: The longer the wait, the worse it got, and the more close calls, the harder it became to take and the more the province wanted it.
It's amazing how quickly the wounds have healed.
In many ways it is amazing that this team was the one to do it. When one looks back at the number of great Otago teams to have failed in their attempts to win the Shield, there was little to suggest that this team would be any different. In fact, put in a head-to-head match there is no doubt that the teams of the 1990s and early 2000s would have put 50 points on this current crop.
But Shield games are funny things and they brought out the best of this young group of Otago players, who rightly received a heroes' welcome home after a gutsy display.
Over the past week, the Shield has been all over the province, from the bars in Dunedin on Saturday night through to the small townships and rural countryside of South and Central Otago. Everyone has had a chance to hold or at least get a glimpse of what eluded them for so long.
Perhaps it's a New Zealand thing, or maybe it's just an Otago thing, but winning the Shield just means so much to the people. To put it into perspective for an international audience, it is like winning the World Cup, only more important to many.
Even if it is lost this weekend against Hawkes Bay, the win will still rate as one of the greatest in Otago rugby history. The point was to see Otago win the Shield. Now that they have done it, anything else is a bonus.
In an age preoccupied with professionalism, World Cups and media spectacles, it is good to see that the passion for the game at the provincial level hasn't been lost entirely.
The magic of the Ranfurly Shield lingers on and allows the trophy to remain arguably the most important to New Zealand rugby fans. Long may it continue.
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