CANTERBURY’S ’93 HEROES REUNITE FOR SPECIAL MILESTONE
June marked 30 years since arguably Canterbury’s greatest-ever victory – the unforgettable thrashing of Auckland at the Addington Showgrounds in the 1993 provincial championship final – and the squad celebrated the milestone with a raucous reunion last weekend.
With Mark Nixon, who skippered Canterbury to the famous win, the chief organiser after champion back-rower Logan Edwards got the ball rolling, former teammates came from far and wide for a long-awaited get-together.
Simon Angell made the long haul from Perth, Aaron Whittaker and Phil Bergman jetted in from the Gold Coast, Brett Rodger came down from Tauranga, Paul Johnson (Te Anau) and Whetu Taewa (Cromwell) surfaced from down south, and Brendon Tuuta was on a mainland jaunt from the Chatham Islands.
Only a few members of the squad missed the reunion with the team and coach Frank Endacott, which centred around the races (despite an Endacott-owned horse’s late scratching), a punt, a few beers, plenty of tall tales and many, many laughs with great mates.
Memories of the iconic match have become part of the fabric of Canterbury Rugby League’s history and remain vivid three decades on.
During the ’93 championship round-robin fixtures, Endacott’s Canterbury side trounced Auckland 40-12 in Christchurch before going down 9-6 at Carlaw Park to set up another showdown in the final.
Auckland coach Owen Wright controversially drafted in Britain-based professionals Tawera Nikau, Craig Innes, Duane Mann, Se’e Solomona, and brothers Tea and Iva Ropati for the decider, while Canterbury’s only genuine ‘import’ was Tuuta.
Spurred on by a baying crowd at the Showgrounds, Canterbury powered to a 16-0 lead by halftime and went on with the job in the second stanza, racking up an emphatic seven-tries-to-two, 36-12 triumph.
“The crowd were a massive part of it. They said 10,000 – it was probably more like 15,000, they were packed in there,” Nixon recalled, “And the next day was pretty good at the Canterbury Rugby League offices.”
“The way the team was appreciated around Christchurch, it was hard going for rugby league in those days but the Canterbury rugby union team wasn’t going that flash and instantly we became the golden boys.
“People still want to talk to you about it.
“I talked to Craig Innes years later when I was at Featherstone, he said nothing had gone through him before like we did that day – he didn’t know what happened.
“We’ve dined out on it enough – and I’m sure we’ll keep dining out on it! We’re in our dinner suits this weekend and we’re dining out on it again.”
Tuuta was a deserving man-of-the-match, outplaying Test lock Nikau, but there were heroes all over the paddock for Canterbury. Blair Harding (who tragically passed away in 2004), making his first start for the province in the centres, scored two tries; second-rower Edwards brilliantly laid on a pair of four-pointers and bagged one himself; the experienced Marty Crequer had a blinder at fullback, as did captain Nixon at five-eighth; Brent Stuart led the way up front; and Mike Culley outshone Test hooker Mann with a try and four goals.
It rated as one of the greatest days in Canterbury Rugby League’s 82-season history, while the comprehensive nature of the win certainly made an impression on the New Zealand selectors. Stuart, Nixon, Taewa and newcomers Edwards, Harding, Whittaker, Angell and Johnson for the Kiwis’ tour of Great Britain and France at the end of the year.
“1993 was pretty special, we were a team – they always say a champion team will beat a team of champions, and that was certainly what we were,” said Whittaker, who was Canterbury’s halfback that day.
“Frank had a lot to do with that, a great friend and coach. He drew the line in the sand – if you crossed the line, you certainly knew about it.
“We went into camp for three days and that just built the camaraderie. It was like big brother versus little brother – Auckland have always been the big brother, the majority of the Kiwi sides came from Auckland.
“We had a lot to prove, and I think we did that. [Endacott’s] psyche was … we’re the underdogs, and we just wanted it more than them. We bled for each other.
“Whilst we were from Halswell, Hornby, Eastern, Sydenham, Marist and so on – archrivals [in club football] – we just came together as a team and on the day we were just unbelievable. It was great to be a part of history and win the Rugby League Cup and from that we had eight guys make the Kiwis touring team in 1993, and I was one of those.
“I’m very proud and honoured to this day.
“It’s great, it’s good to see a lot of them and see how they look after themselves. They’re in great spirits, you can hear the laughter in the background and just to have that camaraderie, rugby league’s a special sport … but to have these [reunions] and be a part of it, it’s amazing.”
Endacott’s last match of a five-year tenure as Canterbury coach also provided a springboard to his elite coaching career, taking over as Kiwis coach in 1994 (after a successful tour of Britain in charge of the Junior Kiwis in 1993), Auckland Warriors’ inaugural reserve grade coach in 1995, and top-flight stints in charge of the Warriors (1997-98) and Wigan (2000-01).
But unbeknownst to anyone involved at the time, the ’93 premiership final also signalled the end of an era for domestic representative rugby league in New Zealand.
The advent of the national Lion Red Cup competition in 1994 resulted in a heavily truncated rep schedule, while the rise of fulltime professionalism virtually ended the days of current Kiwis and Australian and English premiership stars turning out for their provinces.
“This reunion has been a great reminder of Canterbury’s ability to produce world-class rugby league players and coaches,” said CRL CEO Malcolm Humm, who was an invited guest to the festivities.
“Many of the players at the reunion went on to play, or had already played, for NRL and English clubs as well as the Kiwis, whilst this era was a launching pad for Frank Endacott’s stellar professional coaching career with the Kiwis, Auckland Warriors and Wigan. This group is an inspiration and certainly forged the way for many players in Canterbury after them.”
1993 First Division Championship final
Canterbury 36 (Blair Harding 2, Marty Crequer, Mike Doreen, Simon Angell, Mike Culley, Logan Edwards tries; Culley 4 goals) defeated Auckland 12 (Tea Ropati, Duane Mann tries; Patrick Hellesoe, Hitro Okesene goals) at Addington Showgrounds. Halftime: Canterbury 16-0. Referee: Rodney Horn (Bay of Plenty).
Canterbury: Marty Crequer, Mike Doreen, Blair Harding, Brett Rodger, Whetu Taewa, Mark Nixon (c), Aaron Whittaker, Brent Stuart, Mike Culley, Ron Simanu, Simon Angell, Logan Edwards, Brendon Tuuta. Interchange: Justin Wallace, Paul Johnson, Andrew Vincent, Shane Ngataki. Coach: Frank Endacott.