The Vikings’ sinking ship
This year marks 20 years since the Central Vikings, a joint rugby team between Manawatu¯ and Hawke’s Bay, disbanded. takes a look back at the rise and fall of one of New Zealand rugby’s most contentious teams.
Uniting a pair of sworn enemies to create a cohesive team always appeared fraught with danger.
Many Hawke’s Bay and Manawatu¯ matches have ended in fisticuffs over the years, but for a brief two-year run, the provinces held hands under the joint desire to climb out of the depths of the National Provincial Championship’s second division.
In 1997, the Vikings were born. Gone were the black and white of Hawke’s Bay and the green and white of Manawatu¯. Fans were instead asked to don orange and blue.
By the end of 1998, the team was no more. A pile of debt was the lasting legacy of the team that, despite losing just three second division matches in two years, would never make it to the first division.
But, the lessons of the two unions’ battle against inequality in provincial rugby left a resounding mark on the rugby landscape that help spark change in provincial rugby.
The concept was born in 1996. Manawatu¯ were well removed from their glory years of the 1970s, but remained ambitious. Neighbours Hawke’s Bay were interested in a joint venture and when the boards met, they called on Dave Gaynor as a business adviser.
‘‘The purpose was to have a team that could get into the first division and be sustainable. At the time, it was clear that even if [a second division team] got into first division, you would not have enough money to sign the right players to be able to sustain it,’’ he says.
‘‘The boards of both Manawatu¯ and Hawke’s Bay had a big debate about it and decided that it was not possible for either one of the two unions to be able to sustain a top-performing first division team without substantial funding.
‘‘I think that the logic behind that was very sound.’’
In May 1996, the unions made a joint announcement that they would pursue a Central rugby team. Then Manawatu¯ rugby writer Peter Lampp said there were plenty of people against the merger early on.
‘‘It was an unnatural alliance, especially given the competitiveness between the two unions. It was a bit like consorting with the enemies in some ways,’’ he says.
New Zealand Rugby eventually opted to allow the team to go ahead for the 1997 season and the Vikings wasted no time recruiting an all-star cast
They started with Manawatu¯ and Hurricanes coach Frank Oliver, then ensured they retained Manawatu¯’s best asset – star fullback Christian Cullen.
Then came Stephen Bachop, Roger Randle, Danny Lee, Chresten Davis, Dion Waller and Mark ‘‘Bull’’ Allen.
‘‘It was an unnatural alliance, especially given the competitiveness between the two unions.’’
Rugby writer Peter Lampp Prop Orcades Crawford goes on the charge against Bay of Plenty in 1997.