Saturday, 24 August 2013

Day of redemption for Otago's David Latta

Otago fans celebrate the arrival of the Ranfurly Shield in Dunedin on Saturday
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JUBILATION: Otago fans celebrate the arrival of the Ranfurly Shield in Dunedin on Saturday after the province claimed it off Waikato in Hamilton on Friday night.
At last David Latta can rest easy.
The provincial stalwart played 161 games for the proud province from 1986-96, none arguably more famous than Otago's heartbreaking 1994 Ranfurly Shield loss to Canterbury.
With Otago leading 20-19 with time up, Latta was penalised for diving over a ruck. Andrew Mehrtens' penalty kick saw the red and blacks win 22-20.
But a day after Otago claimed the shield for the first time since 1957, in a 26-19 upset win over Waikato, he said he and many other unlucky Otago players could now move on.
"It [1994] is part of one of the disappointments in life and probably not the best way to be remembered about rugby," Latta told the Sunday Star-Times.
"But it is all part of that history of the shield and there are a lot of other people around New Zealand who have probably had similar heartache.
"Yesterday [in Friday's game], those young fellows put all those demons to bed for a lot of people in the Otago [province].
"I am just so proud. We have been on the other side with the heartache, and that is all part of it . . . part of the learning and I think it makes you a better person."
Latta soaked up every moment of Otago's fantastic victory with mates. "I was watching at a friend's place on a big screen, having a few beers and just enjoying the occasion," he said.
"It was great for the province, special for those boys up there [in Hamilton], and special for everyone down here as well supporting them."
Unlike many rugby fans around New Zealand, Latta believed the youthful Otago side could upset Waikato and end his province's 56-year Ranfurly Shield drought.
He said they won because they stuck to their plan and "believed in each other".
"These guys will have a lifetime memory of that game. They have made history and that is the important part."
Latta joined hundreds of other jubilant Otago fans in welcoming the province's latest crop of Ranfurly Shield heroes when they touched down at Dunedin Airport yesterday afternoon.
"It's a big crowd, it's just fantastic," he said.
Later in the day, the Otago team showed up at central Dunedin pub The Bog, complete with shield, to watch the All Blacks-Wallabies test. To the delight of pubgoers, the team performed a spirirted haka at the same time as the All Blacks.
The team and the Ranfurly Shield are set to be paraded at the city's roofed stadium today.
Among the crowd will be one-test All Black Tup Diack, a member of the province's 1957 shield-winning team.
Talking to the Star-Times last night, the 78-year-old local hero said the latest success would be a "big help" to rugby in Otago.
It comes 18 months after Otago almost disappeared off the national rugby radar due to the then-dire financial plight of the Otago Rugby Football Union.
In 1957, Diack's team upset Wellington 19-11. They defended the shield successfully against South Canterbury, before losing it to Taranaki.
He said there were similarities between his side's victory and Friday night's historic result.
"We were a pretty young side and nobody really expected us to do anything," he said."There was never a big buildup. But there was great jubilation [when we won]."
Diack said that as long as Otago were successful in their first-up defence against Hawke's Bay next Sunday, the current shield holders would have a longer defence reign.
"[On Friday] they played with a great lot of heart, courage and commitment," he said.
PAIN GAME 1967: Hawke's Bay halfback Aidan Thomas darts down the blindside late for 9-8 try decider.
1970: Fullback Laurie Mains kicks Otago out to a 9-0 lead by halftime, but Canterbury's Fergie McCormick's boot holds off the challenge, 16-12.
1994: Hooker David Latta dives over a ruck in the last passage of play with Otago up 20-19. Andrew Mehrtens' penalty nicks it, 22-20.
2000: Otago leads 26-14 with 20 minutes left but loses 29-26 after a late try to blazing Caleb Ralph.
2002: Canterbury halfback Justin Marshall scores under the posts to tie the scores. Mehrtens converts late penalty for 16-13 win.
2010: Is Jamie Mackintosh's try a double movement? Referee says no, and Southland holds, 16-12.
Even in  glory there is pain.
But, oh, what glory for Otago.
With time up on the clock on Friday night and Otago leading by seven points, Waikato had the feed to the scrum with 25 metres to a tryline that would keep the Ranfurly Shield in Hamilton.
For every Otago supporter, the inevitable was coming.
The noose that had drained every last breath out of every gruelling shield challenge of the past 56 years - 22 lost - was tightening.
The "David Latta". The "Caleb Ralph". The "Justin Marshall". The "Wayne Smith". Take your pick. Every Otago fan has their own personal piece of Ranfurly Shield misery to hold on to when, as has happened for more than five decades, victory mocks Otago.
Mine was a clip over the head on the Lancaster Park Embankment in 1994 as Jeff Wilson's sideline conversion attempt of Stephen Bachop's first-half try hit the upright. The cuff was delivered by a bloke who could have been my grand-dad, standing beside me dressed in Canterbury lambskin. David Latta and Andrew Mehrtens were mere sideshows that dreadful 22-20 day.
Or Wayne Smith scorching to the corner in 1984 before I could even get to my seat. I had been on a train with my schoolmate all morning to get there, and there wasn't much in the 44-3 mauling to talk about on the choo-choo ride back.
In Hamilton on Friday night it was coming - Otago leading 26-19 and halfback Kylem O'Donnell sets the Mooloo men at the tryline for the seemingly inevitable comeback moment to tie the game and keep the shield.
But this time the Otago line held strong under captain Paul Grant, as it had heroically done throughout this punishing match.
Coach Tony Brown and his assistant Phil Young, a true-blue hero down south, took the congratulations afterwards, but spoke of those who had come so close.
Of all of Otago's centurions, a list topped by towering lock Richard Knight at 170 games, Latta on 161 and my own boyhood Otago hero Ken Bloxham (155), only Tup Diack (tied at No 20 with 101 games) played in a successful Otago Shield era.
Win and they will come, those who built Dunedin's new stadium believed. So expect a full house when Hawke's Bay travel south next Sunday for Otago's first defence of the Ranfurly Shield since 1957. The city deserves it.
My shield advice to supporters of the Big O is simple: Enjoy it like it might be your last. Fifty-six years ago, Otago's reign lasted two games.
Otago had taken the log o' wood off Wellington, 19-11, but survived only one challenge - 6-3 over South Canterbury - before losing 11-9 to Taranaki, when Otago coach Charlie Saxton famously said: "The better team lost."
As one blogger posted yesterday: "I was just a kid in the middle of an icy winter at Mornington School, Dunedin, in 1957 when Otago last lifted the Ranfurly Shield. I never thought I would have to wait 56 years to see my province regain the trophy."
Star-Times Editor-in-Chief Garry Ferris grew up in the shadows of Carisbrook. He can now step out of them
- © Fairfax NZ News

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