Rugby World Cup Countdown
An alternative history
February 18, 2011
The Raeburn Shield is named after the site of the first Test, between Scotland and England © Getty Images
The shadow cast across 2011 by the Rugby World Cup is appropriately vast but, just for a moment, permit us a flight of fancy.
Imagine a worldwide Test competition in which Romania and Samoa have been crowned champions, where New Zealand have won the prize on 15 occasions since 1987 and where England's successors as champions in 2003 were not South Africa, but Ireland.
Welcome to the hypothetical world of the Raeburn Shield, the most interesting rugby competition you've never heard of. Named after Raeburn Place, the site of the first international between Scotland and England in 1871, the Shield is 'contested' in every Test match played by the holder under the challenge system that has served boxing so well over the years.
The next 'defence' will take place in Sydney on July 23, when the champion Springboks take on Australia in a Tri-Nations tie at ANZ Stadium. The Shield is not recognised by any official body, was dismissed by the IRB and has a limited following, but the path to this fixture is as rich and interesting as any other world competition.
In total, 11 countries have held the Shield. South Africa lifted the prize from England at Twickenham at the tail-end of November last year. Australia and New Zealand had previously contested it in Hong Kong on October 30, when the Wallabies came out on top despite the All Blacks having been on a run of 15 straight defences.
The concept of the Shield sprang forth from a number of sources, all of whom were keen to chart a rugby history based on the challenge system, or 'winner stays on'. With the interested fans emboldened by rugby's ever-growing online community, the question of the Shield's history and list of holders was answered by a number of aficionados - who rolled back the clock to that first Test on March 27, 1871 and declared Scotland as the inaugural winners of the title.
Among the people working on the Shield's history was Auckland-based lawyer Paul Johns.
"There had been a similar idea for soccer, or football, that had been floating around for years," he said. "And it was from that that a number of different people had come up with the idea. When it occurred to me, I was living in London and at that stage I was a fairly regular user of a rugby internet forum.
"I mentioned it on there, and having a bit of spare time I'd worked out the hypothetical past winners and a few other facts and figures, so I posted it on there to see if anyone else thought it was as interesting as I did.
"A few others picked it up from there. One of them set up the website and someone else posted the idea on another site, this was back in about 2008. Whenever there was a hypothetical 'challenge' matches on, people would mention the fact on the forum and occasionally it would generate a little bit of interest."
Johns wrote to the IRB explaining the idea but his words fell on deaf ears. The pursuit of legitimacy - beginning with a trophy - has been an ongoing one, although recent interest has been signalled by the Edinburgh Academical club, who call Raeburn Place home.
"There was no response from them and to be honest, I'm not sure the IRB is the right way to go about it," he said. "The way they structure the international game, obviously the World Cup is their money maker. From their point of view, in a trophy like this because it's difficult to make money out of.
"The other two options we thought of originally, which we took some way, were to get the national unions interested - whoever the current holder was would have to put up some sort of trophy and hope it got taken seriously and put up in subsequent matches. The third way, was media interest. If a rugby magazine started publishing winners and kept going for a while then that might provide impetus to provide a proper trophy and publicise the thing."
With Samoa and Romania, who held the Shield in 1984 and 1999 respectively having beaten Scotland and Wales, among the list of winners, Johns believes that there is a possible development angle to the competition and also that it would reward 'great' sides far more regularly than the World Cup.
"A great team could hold the Shield for several years, whereas a flash in the pan World Cup holder wouldn't hold on to it for very long," he said. "It's almost inevitable that a World Cup winner would win the Shield at some point, during a World Cup, but it would be a trophy that countries other than the southern hemisphere three, England and France could win. They are the only five who could possibly win the World Cup, with all due respect to Ireland, Wales, but if you look at the hypothetical list of Shield winners it contains teams such as Romania and Samoa. It wouldn't happen very often but it could happen.
"Teams these days, like Tonga, Fiji, definitely Ireland and Scotland, can lift themselves for a challenge and knock over one of the big boys, when if it was a tour game or a World Cup Pool match they probably wouldn't.
"Say Samoa did hold the Shield. Then there is an incentive for Australia, South Africa, New Zealand to invite them over, for a warm-up game before the Tri-Nations. Traditionally we have hosted a European country and occasionally will play a Tonga or a Fiji, tonk them 100-0 and get on with the real games. Maybe that would improve their record."
Key to the Shield's appeal is its nature as a challenge tournament. In New Zealand, the Ranfurly Shield retains a special place among the country's rugby psyche despite having been knocked down the pecking order by the various incarnations of the NPC. Last season Southland, not a traditional powerhouse, were invigorated by a long run with the Shield, where the material effects were felt not only by the team, but also the community.
"It was absolutely unbelievable run that they had and it does go to show that when there is this sort of prize on the line that a minor team can hold on to it," Johns said. "If they [Southland] had to win the Championship and were staring down the barrel of a whole round robin season, I don't think anyone ever thought that they could win that.
"But when it is one game at a time, and the Ranfurly Shield is only contested at home as well, every game is a final and you can see how a team can lift itself. The way it energised that region was phenomenal. If you had the same thing with a Tonga or Samoa, you'd see the same response."
The Raeburn Shield in numbers:
New Zealand have held the Shield a record 33 times, most recently at the end of last season's Tri-Nations, and have also racked up the most successive defences, with 18 between 1987 and 1990. The All Blacks can also claim to have made the most defences overall, retaining on 144 occasions. The current holders, South Africa, do hold a record however, having held the Shield for the longest time - 5,845 days. Italy are the only Six Nations representative not to have won the title, with all of the southern hemisphere powers, including Argentina, having held it.
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
Huw Baines is the Assistant Editor of ESPNscrum.