National Provincial Championship: 1980s

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Monday, August 15, 2016    Getty Images

In 1985, a split Division Two for each island was replaced by united Division Two and Three. The top and bottom placed teams in each division were automatically promoted and relegated each year.

1980: Magnificent Manawatu
Manawatu enjoyed a golden era from the mid-1970s to early 1980s and were rewarded with an NPC title in 1980. Manawatu’s well-balanced backline was led by All Blacks Mark Donaldson and Doug Rollerson with teenage wing Craig Wickes crossing for six tries. But it was the forward pack where Manawatu really excelled. The dynamic loose forward trio of Mark Shaw, Geoff Old and Terry Sole combined with a polished tight five to ensure that Manawatu bounced back from an early loss to Wellington to claim the crown.


1981: Wellington double up
Wellington became the first team to win the Rugby Cup for a second time when dynamic flanker Paul Quinn led the Lions to the title in emphatic fashion. With an All Blacks back three of Stu Wilson, Bernie Fraser and Alan Hewson and a forward pack including the dynamic Murray Mexted, veteran Frank Walker and youngster Brian McGratten, Wellington won nine out of 10 games to end the season four points clear at the top of the ladder. To make things even sweeter for the side, they also ended 1981 as Ranfurly Shield holders after beating Waikato in the penultimate match of the season.

1982: Auckland off the mark

Although Auckland is the most successful team in National Provincial Championship history with 16 titles, it wasn’t until 1982 that they claimed their first championship. The first title didn’t come easy for Auckland with back-to-back losses to Canterbury and Counties seeming to end their title hopes before a late season revival. Needing to beat reigning champions Wellington in the final match of the season, 19-year-old first five-eighth Grant Fox starred with a vital 15 points in the 35-22 victory.

1983: Complete Canterbury
Canterbury went unbeaten in the 1983 NPC season to claim the Rugby Cup with Wellington five points behind in second place. Fullback Robbie Deans earned a call up to the All Blacks due to his hot form for Canterbury. The elusive fullback proved to be an effective attacker, tactician and pin point goal kicker for Canterbury in their unbeaten campaign. Canterbury also lifted the Ranfurly Shield from Wellington and went unbeaten across nine challenges in 1983. Other stars for Canterbury included young outside back Craig Green, courageous mid-fielder Warwick Taylor and classy loose forward Jock Hobbs.

1984: Untouchable Auckland

With a team full of young stars, Auckland lit up the 1984 NPC to pip Canterbury for the title. Auckland’s success was highlighted by a young crop of dynamic backs that included current or future All Blacks Grant Fox, John Kirwan, Terry Wright, Joe Stanley and Bernie McCahill. In 10 NPC matches, Auckland amassed a remarkable 43 points including 70 tries. But even more remarkable was Auckland’s defence which conceded just eight tries.

1985: The evolution
The NPC underwent some changes in the 1985 season with a third division introduced and North Harbour entering the competition for the first time. In the First Division, Auckland backed up their stellar 1984 season with another title and ended the season as Ranfurly Shield holders. In a match dubbed ‘the game of the century’, Auckland leapt to a 24-0 halftime lead before Canterbury clawed back before finally succumbing 28-23. John Kirwan announced himself as one of the rising stars of New Zealand rugby with 7 tries across the NPC season.

1986: Capital comeback

It was going to take a special effort for any team to topple Auckland as NPC champions and it came from Wellington. While not boasting the same level of star power as Auckland, Wellington had a hard working pack and speedy backline that combined well throughout the season. In the backline, dynamic fullback John Gallagher was a constant performer while second five-eighth John Schuster announced himself as a star to watch.

1987: The A Team
With a team boasting 14 players from the All Blacks successful 1987 Rugby World Cup campaign, Auckland were simply too powerful for the competition. Auckland went through the season unbeaten, with their closest game coming in a 24-15 win over Canterbury. John Kirwan backed up his stellar Rugby World Cup form with nine tries but was outdone by Zinzan Brooke who crossed for 12 tries, including four in one game versus Taranaki.

1988: Flawless Auckland

For the second season running, Auckland went unbeaten to claim the NPC title. Although Auckland lost pivotal players David Kirk and John Drake to retirement in 1988, their dominance remained with new stars like Craig Innes and Brett Iti emerging. Grant Fox was a reliable as ever in racking up 155 points while Zinzan Brooke crossed for seven tries to showcase Auckland’s try scoring danger from the pack.

1989: Three-peat
Auckland became the first team to win the NPC three times in a row when they went unbeaten for the third straight season. North Harbour were the only team to push Auckland close with a 9-9 draw setting the tone for an annual contest that would become known as the ‘battle of the bridge’. Grant Fox was again in fine form with the boot in scoring 160 points while a couple of new stars were unearthed in blockbusting wing Va’aiga Tuigamala and smooth running full back Matthew Ridge.