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Top 10 memorable seasons in Wellington rugby

Above: The Wellington Lions with the Ranfurly Shield – 2008 poster.

The following article first appeared in a Wellington Lions match-day programme in 2009 and was first published online here in 2014. Apart from perhaps 2013 being a contender, there have been no noteworthy updates to this list since. With a record this year so far of played 1/won 1, the Lions are on track to create more happy memories in 2021.

1904: Wellington wins first Ranfurly Shield challenge

 Played 10. Won 8. Lost 2. Points for 117. Points against 63.

Wellington enters the first challenge for the Ranfurly Shield on 6 August and defeats inaugural holders Auckland 6-3. Wellington scores two tries, to G.D Gray and Duncan McGregor for their second consecutive win over the Aucklanders after seven successive previous losses to them. They sail home triumphantly, via New Plymouth for a midweek fixture with Taranaki. Three players, forward Thomas Cross, fullback Billy Wallace and wing McGregor, back up again at Athletic Park on Saturday 13 August for New Zealand in a 9-3 win over Great Britain. As the curtain-raiser to this Test, Wellington defeats Buller 22-10 and then successfully defends the Shield against Canterbury and Otago before the season is out.

1920: A busy year and the Shield is taken on tour

Played 15. Won 12. Lost 3. Points for 261. Points against 177.

If the demands of today’s professional rugby players are sometimes considered overwhelming, spare a thought for Wellington’s post WW1 side. 1920 stands out for the volume of inter-provincial rugby played – particularly compared to other seasons of the same era as much fewer games were played – and for its taxing schedule. Of 24 ‘first-class’ fixtures that Wellington ‘A’ and ‘XV’ teams contest 16 are won. This includes matches against the New Zealand Services team in May, the All Blacks in August and no fewer than 11 Ranfurly Shield defences, five of which are played away. In one five-match stretch in 14 days the ‘A’s’ successfully defend the Shield three times, lose it to Southland in Invercargill and then beat Canterbury in Christchurch on the way home.

1930: Win over Great Britain caps unbeaten season

Played 9. Won 8. Drew 1. Lost 0. Points for 146. Points against 80

For the first time since 1919 Wellington remains unbeaten all season. In home matches, Wellington enjoys wins over Auckland, Wairarapa and Taranaki and a draw with Hawke’s Bay, while away they defeat Otago, Southland and Canterbury on the South Island tour. The 12-3 victory over Southland also wins the Ranfurly Shield, which they immediately polish and put away in the trophy cabinet to be defended once in 1931 (and lost it to Canterbury). But the undoubted highlight of 1930 that proceeds this great domestic campaign is a momentous 12-8 win over the touring Great Britain side on 3 June. Five Wellington players also feature in the ensuing Test series, won 3-1 by New Zealand.

Spectators watching the match on 3 June 1930 between Wellington and Great Britain at Athletic Park. Wellington won 12-8. Raine, William Hall, 1892-1955 :Negatives of New Zealand towns and scenery, and Fiji. Ref: PAColl-5933-02. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. /records/22336280

1953: Shield fever hits Wellington

Played 18. Won 13. Drew 1, lost 4. Points for298. Points against 156

Wellington becomes the carnival capital for six weeks in August and September in a magnificent but brief Ranfurly Shield tenure. Wellington has an exciting team, coached by Clarrie Gibbons, whose mantra is ‘spin it’ and led by an all-star backline headed by the ‘ace of match winners’ Ron Jarden and featuring his current All Black and club teammates Brian Fitzpatrick and Jim Fitzgerald and tearaway flanker Bill Clark. They lift the log off Waikato and (accompanied by parades and much fanfare) defend it five times playing attractive rugby throughout. Sadly, Canterbury ends the party by winning it on 19 September, but not after seven Wellington players are selected for the All Blacks.

1966: Freeman’s Lions in hot form

Played 16. Won 14. Drew 1. Lost 1. Points for 290. points against 90

Fresh from lowering the Springbok colours in 1965, the Bill Freeman-coached Wellington Lions capture another major international scalp in June by knocking over the British Lions 20-6. This sets the tone for a wonderful season that sees them lose just one match and that is to Canterbury whom they turn around and dispatch in the return fixture. They win all four matches on the southern tour for the first time since 1930 and beat (mid-1960s) powerhouses Auckland and Taranaki twice each. Wellington is understrength in the 0-0 draw with Waikato, while the climax of the season is a 20-6 win over new Ranfurly Shield holders Hawke’s Bay. Individually, All Blacks Ken Gray and Mick Williment pass 100 games and Williment sets a New Zealand record 213 points in a first-class season.

1978: Wellington wins first NPC title

Played 14. Won 10. Lost 4. Points for 262. Points against 158

Wellington wins the first of its four National Provincial Championship titles this year, winning eight NPC matches from 10 and clinching the honours with a 19-15 win over Taranaki in the penultimate round. The title appears a long way off however following early season defeats to Wanganui and NSW, a narrow 19-15 over Counties in the NPC season opener and then a loss to Southland. But happy days return again and the Lions win six from their next seven, the loss being a 6-13 defeat to Manawatu which also doubles as a Ranfurly Shield challenge. The team is coached by Ian Upston and captained by prop Al Keown, while winger Bernie Fraser is the NPC’s leading try scorer with eight – including four in one match against Canterbury.

1981: Ranfurly Shield – NPC double caps great year

Played 17. Won 14. Lost 3. Points for 422. Points against 168.

The Wellington Lions mark a successful season by beating international team Scotland and by winning the NPC and Ranfurly Shield. Bernie Fraser scores two tries in the 19-15 victory over the Scots ahead of August and September’s NPC in which Wellington wins nine from 10 and scores 255 points and concedes just 94 to triumph with two games to spare. Highlights are big home wins against Southland (34-9) and Otago (26-6) and away wins against Auckland (24-13) and Canterbury (31-6). The NPC secured, the Lions head to the Waikato on 30 September and take the Shield off the holders (22-4) after cruising to an 18-0 lead at halftime. Stu Wilson, Allan Hewson, Murray Mexted, Jamie Salmon and Bernie Fraser all make the All Blacks for the end of year tour.

1986: Lions sweep to third championship title

Played 19. Won 16. Lost 3. Points for 521. Points against 280

The 1986 Lions under new coach and former All Blacks first five-eighth and dentist Earle Kirton sweep through the NPC unbeaten in 10 matches to capture Wellington’s third championship title in nine seasons. Missing six frontline players to the Cavaliers tour to South Africa, early season form is patchy as they slump to fifth out of six in the South Pacific Championship. They then roar into life in matches against Wanganui and the New Zealand Colts and prove unstoppable in the NPC, grabbing notable wins against Auckland (23-16) and Canterbury (22-16). Strong up front and playing a wide-ranging, expansive game, the Lions are on fire. Fullback John Gallagher tops the competition’s individual points scoring with 185.

2000: The drought is broken

Played 13. Won 9. Lost 4. Points for 363. Points against 309

Wellingtonian’s are struggling to remember the last time their team has won the NPC when a sudden late season surge in form carries them to their fourth championship title. After making their first final in 1999 against Auckland, the Wellington Lions go one better and triumph over Canterbury 34-29 in the season finale in Christchurch. Champion winger Jonah Lomu bags a brace as they leap to a 34-15 lead midway through the second half and hold off a Canterbury comeback. Wellington finishes the season well after losing three from four in the middle stages. But from there they break free and the team’s current and future superstars all shine- namely Lomu, Christian Cullen, Tana Umaga, Rodney So’oialo and Jerry Collins.

2008: The Log o’ Wood returns in record breaking season

Played 16. Won 13. Lost 3. Points for 507. Points against 252  

The 27-0 Ranfurly Shield victory at Eden Park, 26 years and two days after they have last held it, is the highpoint of an outstanding run to the final for the 2008 Wellington Lions in which they end the 10-week regular season as the top qualifier for the play-offs with nine consecutive wins. This is the first time since 1986 that a Wellington team has won each of its first nine matches in a season. Unfortunately, they are pipped at the last post by Canterbury 7-6 in the home final at Westpac Stadium. Records also come thick and fast: the 11 championship wins the most ever in a single ANZC/NPC season, the 65 tries scored a competition record and Left wing Hosea Gear’s 14 championship tries breaking Bernie Fraser’s 1981 Wellington record for the most tries in a season.

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