Forty years ago, Auckland won its first NPC title. Within two years of that seminal season, the blue and whites were playing rugby of an ethereal quality that had not been seen as New Zealand dragged itself out of the dour 1970s rugby decade. Seventeen NPC titles have followed since 1982. Indeed, from 1982-96 Auckland won 11 championships in 15 seasons. Eden Park became a fortress long before the All Blacks called it such. Just as John Hart was the right man for the All Blacks as they entered fulltime professionalism in 1996, so too he was the right man to lead Auckland in 1982 and instil his wide vision for what this team could achieve.
Auckland had under-achieved in the first six years of the NPC. There was a Shield victory to savour in 1979, but the side was inconsistent and often ill-disciplined, despite fielding some fine cattle. Someone needed to kickstart the province’s playing potential. Hart was 36, just three years out of playing, but was not necessarily widely popular in the province, seen as something of a yappy halfback, though one who had done good things at the helm of the Waitematā club, with whom he won the 1975 Gallaher Shield as player-coach. Five others stood against him for the Auckland position, including the likes of Barrie ‘Tank’ Herring. That was an indication of the division within the Auckland union.
Hart needed buy-in from the clubs as to what he was doing and what nights he trained, and buy-in from the union for his plans for a team manager who was not just doing it for the perks. After a short discussion with the outspoken Auckland Rugby Union chairman Ron Don, Hart was able to bring Gary Inglis on board, not a delegate who could be rotated after a handful of games (as had previously been the case). Former Auckland captain Neil Cullimore stayed on as forwards coach, having worked under Hart’s predecessor Bryan Craies. Cullimore stayed on until the end of 1983. Gone from the 1981 side, which finished fourth in the NPC, were the likes of prop Brad Johnstone, who had retired, fullback Colin Farrell, flankers Barry Ashworth and Kevin Ramsey, and first five Steve McCulloch. Hart was not sold on Lindsay Harris, who proved to be, from 1983, a central figure in his attacking strategy, so after Richard Fry was injured early in the season, he whistled up Bryan ‘Beegee’ Williams to play fullback.
The latter did a fine job in 10 games, crossing for two tries to close his 14-year provincial career with 53 tries from 130 outings. On the wings were 1979-80 All Black Gary Cunningham, the under-rated Wayne Hill or Tua Saseve, possessed of the biggest thighs in the game. The centres were either Joe Stanley, making his first-class debut at the age of 25, or John Collinson, who later moved into second five. Others of the ilk of Peter Corlett, from a family of New Zealand sporting royalty (being the son of the great Yvette Corlett, née Williams), or All Blacks triallist Mike Mills appeared in the midfield. At first five, Hart introduced a 19-year-old in his second year of senior footy who would prove to be the benchmark for kicking tactically or for goal – one Grant Fox. The halfback duties were shared between Richard Dunn and Tim Burcher, two skilled but quite different No 9s...
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