When they were Kings

When They Were Kings

We revisit the spring of 1998, when Otago played with pure enjoyment, and won the NPC in quite brilliant fashion.

Campbell Burnes goes back 20 years to recall a special team and its brand of rugby.

The Otago Rugby Union has known a few glory days since its establishment in 1881.

There were a few rousing Ranfurly Shield eras, the unbeaten class of 1948, annexing the Springboks head in 1994, winning the NPC in 1991.

That latter year was the last of the Laurie Mains era and came with the asterisk that the RWC All Blacks missed the last round or two of the NPC.

There was no asterisk in 1998, no caveat. Otago was fully deserved of its second NPC crown, lifted in quite brilliant style on a sunny, spring Sunday at a vibrant, packed in like sardines (40,000 of them) Carisbrook, to the tune of 49-20 over a Waikato side that included seven All Blacks.

It is worth listing the Otago team that played on that marvelous day: Jeff Wilson, Brendan Laney, Reuben Parkinson, John Leslie, Romi Ropati, Tony Brown, Byron Kelleher, Isitolo Maka, Josh Kronfeld, Taine Randell, John Blaikie, Brendon Timmins, Kees Meeuws, Anton Oliver, Carl Hoeft. Kelvin Middleton and Simon Maling were used as subs. That is some line-up: nine All Blacks, two Scotland internationals, one Manu Samoa rep. In addition, Andrew Hore and Carl Hayman were teenaged debutantes that season, unused in the final.

Yet there were two aberrations during that NPC: Waikato creamed them 36-12 at Carisbrook in August and struggling Auckland somehow put 41-19 on them at Eden Park. Thereafter it was dark blue and gold highlight reel time: five out of six victories nailed at the ‘Brook.

84-10 over Northland, 82-10 over Wellington (!), 60-10 over Southland, Taranaki dispatched 61-12 in the semifinal.

It was as though the All Blacks in the Otago side, fresh off the annus horribilis of five straight test defeats, had decided to throw off the shackles and enjoy their rugby. Captain Randell, in particular, looked a different player.

Coach Tony Gilbert pulled the right strings, Brown kicked all the points – 196 of them in the NPC still stands as the record – and Laney, known as either Chainsaw or Boof, ran in a record-equalling 15 tries in the competition, mostly from the right wing. Otago spread the ball at will, and the support play was as good as that of the great Auckland sides of the 1980s.

The crowds, naturally, flocked to Carisbrook, drinking in, literally and figuratively, the atmosphere of those heady days in the early professional era.

Many of the squad reconvened for an afternoon of telling tales and reliving that 1998 season on September 22 before the Otago-Canterbury fixture. It was a tight bunch, and they deserved the accolades. The whisper was that the celebrations went well into the night.

Much has changed in rugby and Otago since then. The union nearly went under only a few years ago, and the flagship team is struggling to win promotion from the second-tier Championship division.

But you can easily build a case to say that Otago, for a six-week period in the spring of ’98, has never played better rugby.