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.

The Hastings Mail - - FRONT PAGE -

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.

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