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The Canterbury Bulls and Auckland do battle in Christchurch on Sunday. TONY SMITH has a look at a historic match between the two sides.
Frank Endacott says Sunday's Canterbury Bulls-Auckland clash in Christchurch has brought memories flooding back of 1993's magical match which launched a legion of league careers. His included.
Rugby league stalwarts still speak of Canterbury's 36-12 national provincial championship final conquest in reverential tones. They recall the record 10,000 fans, sardine-packed into every seat, nook and cranny of the Addington Showgrounds. They remember roaring themselves hoarse at the two Logan Edwards-inspired tries which inflicted mortal blows on Auckland in the first five minutes.
"Auckland brought all their pros back from the UK, but we went out and absolutely demolished them that day," Endacott reflected this week.
The Bulls' two Bartercard Cup national titles this decade were phenomenal feats. But nothing has diminished the glow of that marvellous mid-winter afternoon 15 years ago. John Coffey, The Press' long-serving rugby league writer, wrote: "It would have been impossible for a Canterbury script writer, secluded in a red and black room, to have come up with a more perfect climax to a highly successful season."
Endacott, who coached Canterbury then and will be barracking for the Bulls on Sunday, still beams with pride at the '93 game on several levels.
Eight Cantabrians toured Great Britain and France later that year in Howie Tamati's team and Endacott still swears hooker Mike Culley "should have been a Kiwi". Many went on to win to win professional contracts with the nascent Auckland Warriors franchise, or other Australian and British clubs.
Endacott's own coaching career took a stratospheric trajectory. He was already Junior Kiwis coach in 1993 but he took over Tamati's top job in 1994 and went on to have a record seven-season tenure.
He became the Auckland Warriors' foundation reserve grade coach in 1995 and replaced John Monie as first-grade boss two seasons later.
Endacott later coached Wigan and Widnes in England and is still actively involved in the game as a players' agent who commands the respect of Australian and British clubs. He is also proud of how many of his charges have stayed in the game. A lot of them are still coaching and giving back to the sport." Eight of the 17-man squad have coached at club, representative or secondary schools level in the last two seasons. Brent Stuart, a nuggety frontrower in 1993, is now the Bulls' head coach after a six-year stint as assistant. Wing Mike Dorreen and second-rower Edwards guide the Canterbury 18s.
Justin Wallace, the backline reserve in '93, is the current Canterbury Rugby Football League chairman while former Kiwi Aaron Whittaker has become a whistleblower, regularly refereeing junior and lower grade senior matches after a successful club coaching stint. Skipper Mark Nixon is now a part-time rugby league broadcaster.
Canterbury had just one overseas-based professional in 1993, backrower Brendon Tuuta was playing in England.
The red-and-blacks had put a record 40 points on Auckland's local lads earlier on Anzac Day but lost 6-9 in the return encounter. So Endacott was not surprised when Auckland coach Owen Wright brought back seven pros from Britain for the final. He fielded five Kiwis, led by legendary backrower Tawera Nikau. Ex-All Black centre Craig Innes was one of three future Kiwis in the squad.
The Showgrounds were dubbed the Killing Fields back then. Canterbury had beaten Auckland three times there in the 1990s and upset the touring Great Britain team.
While Endacott says Canterbury "never needed motivation to beat Auckland", but the wholesale inclusion of overseas pros gave his players an extra incentive.
"We dusted them," he said. Skipper Nixon said: "They might have had all those Kiwis and professionals, but ... the difference between them and us is often only a lucky break."
Endacott said Canterbury had a "great bunch of blokes". "We were like one big happy family. They just gave everything, it was a terrific display."
The Cantabs won all the individual arm-wrestles. Nikau was the only Aucklander to enhance his reputation. Endacott said the battle between "the two No.13s", Nikau and Tuuta was "exceptional".
"Tawera was a terrific player, but pound-for-pound, you wouldn't bet against Brendon, he was one of the toughest blokes to play the game, and he had it over Tawera that day."
Nikau would later lament that Canterbury "seemed to want it more than we did".
Stuart, still smarting at losing his Kiwis jumper to Se'e Solomona, outplayed the Auckland prop. Mike Culley, overlooked for a Kiwi trial, dominated Duane Mann, scored the match-clinching early second-half try and kicked four goals.
Tuuta was man-of-the-match but the sparkplug was second-rower Edwards. "Logan was the player in our team who could turn a game at the drop of a hat" Endacott said. "We had a little blindside play we used to use with Logan and he set up those first two tries. He had a great game."
Innes was shut out by Canterbury debutant Blair Harding, who scored two tries "and unfortunately dropped the ball which would have given him a hat-trick", Endacott said. Harding passed away several years ago but Endacott said he was "a terrific player". "It's a shame, he's still not with us."
Endacott says the '93 final was the "catalyst why we had so many players on the Kiwi tour to UK and France that year and why so many went on to better things, playing in the NRL and test footy.
"We all did it for each other and our province. We were proud to play for Canterbury in those days and getting the chance to play Auckland, who had two-thirds of the test team in their lineup, gee it was a challenge we couldn't say no to."
Endacott also believes Canterbury had an important 18th-man the partisan crowd. "It was absolutely chokka block in the stands, a huge occasion, one we will never forget. It was the crowd that got us home that day. The players said the crowd was absolutely phenomenal.
"I hope all rugby league fans in Canterbury turn up on Sunday. I'd like to see the Canterbury crowd get real vocal like they were back then."