By Greg Stutchbury
NAPIER, New Zealand, Sept 3 (Reuters) - The Ranfurly Shield stood proudly in the Hawke's Bay Rugby Union offices in McLean Park on Tuesday as local fans trickled in to buy tickets for the province's first defence of the trophy in 44 years.
"You can touch it if you want to," a union employee told someone seeking one of the few remaining general entry tickets to Saturday's match against Counties-Manukau. "I have."
Simply referred to as 'The Shield' or 'The Log o' Wood' in New Zealand, the 111-year-old Ranfurly Shield is something of an anomaly in modern sport in being a proper challenge trophy.
One of New Zealand's 26 provinces holds it until they are beaten in an eligible match at home, at which stage the other team takes it home and retains it until they too are beaten and it moves on again.
Anomaly or not, the Shield still engenders real passion in provincial New Zealand and on Tuesday it had just returned to its resting place on the counter following a street parade in Hastings, about 20 kilometres south of Napier.
The trophy had also been taken through the streets of Napier, the capital of the wine-producing region, immediately after it arrived back in the province on Monday following the team's 20-19 victory over Otago on Sunday.
Otago only held it for eight days, having beaten holders Waikato 26-19 on Aug. 23 - a victory that ended their own 56-year drought - and Hawke's Bay's win was their first since they lost it in 1969 after 21 successful defences.
"It has been immense, the place has gone ballistic," Hawke's Bay chief executive Mike Bishop told Reuters after returning from the parade in Hastings, where thousands flooded onto the streets.
"To be part of those parades over the last two days and see people get behind it is deeply satisfying."
Originally donated by then Governor the Earl of Ranfurly in 1902 to the best provincial side in New Zealand, the Shield became a challenge style competition from 1903 onwards.
LARGER PROVINCES DOMINATE
Hawke's Bay held the trophy for a then record 24 defences in the 1920s, and again for 21 in the 1960s but since they lost it to Canterbury at the end of the 1960s, the larger provinces have dominated.
The All Blacks-laden Auckland side held it for eight years and a record 61 defences until they lost it to Waikato in 1993, though since the advent of professionalism it has been mostly shared around the teams that form the backbone of the Super Rugby franchises.
That has changed in recent years with All Blacks playing less of a role in provincial rugby and Taranaki and Southland held it for varying periods before Otago snatched it off Waikato less than two weeks ago.
Victory for the Magpies of Hawke's Bay has created immense interest and only 'a few' general entry tickets to the 17,000 capacity venue in Napier were available on Tuesday.
"It's special at the moment because we have a piece of wood that makes people go extra stupid," Bishop said with a grin.
"When did we last see two TV crews showing up at our Tuesday afternoon training?" he asked as he looked out of his office at the players undergoing a training run at the sun-drenched stadium.
"I guess that's what the Shield does."
Bishop said retaining the trophy until the end of the season would generate more than NZ$1 million ($781,400) in additional revenue but he thought he had witnessed its greatest legacy over the preceding two days.
Former players had brought along their grandchildren to add to the throng when the team arrived back at Hawke's Bay airport on Monday, reminding Bishop of his own childhood and a side that included All Blacks Ian MacRae, Neil Thimbleby, Blair Furlong and Kel Tremain.
"We couldn't get into the terminal yesterday. It was manic," he said.
"It was chooka full of wee kiddies of six or seven and I said to (captain) Mike Coman when we walked in 'that was me in 1966'.
"I'll never forget those times and (Monday) was the equivalent." ($1 = 1.2797 New Zealand dollars) (Editing by Nick Mulvenney)