Wayne Shelford was one of the hardest men to ever play rugby union, and as a result, the New Zealand No 8 was also one of the greatest to play his position
Major teams: North Harbour, Northampton
Country: New Zealand
Test span: 1986-90
New Zealand caps: 22 (22 starts)
Test points: 20 (5T)
When debates rage over the hardest men to ever play rugby union, Wayne ‘Buck’ Shelford will forever get a mention.
A force at the back of the scrum for the All Blacks, Shelford clawed and thumped his way towards a reputation as an unyielding competitor. His time in Test rugby was short-lived – he amassed just 22 caps – but while he was there he barged his way into the global game’s consciousness, not only winning a World Cup but overseeing a period of Kiwi dominance.
After fine displays for North Harbour in 1985, young Buck toured Argentina, wearing black for the first time against Club Atletico San Isidro in Buenos Aires. A year later he made his full Test debut against France.
It was Shelford’s second full cap, against the same foes, that has become part of rugby folklore. Playing in the ‘Battle of Nantes’, a forceful boot aimed at Buck’s groin tore his scrotum, with the No 8 also losing several teeth at the bottom of the same ruck. With frightening calm, Shelford asked to be stitched up and sent back out. Eventually Shelford was hauled off, concussed, and the All Blacks lost 16-3, but it would be the only Test he ever lost.
In 1987 he was part of the all-conquering New Zealand side that won the inaugural World Cup. The next year he would become captain and lead the All Blacks on a 14-game unbeaten run. When he was eventually dropped for Zinzan Brooke in 1990, a national campaign began to ‘Bring back Buck’.
He never played another Test but Shelford had left an indelible mark on New Zealand rugby. In the late ‘80s he wanted to make a change. Not to his side’s play but to the haka. Before Shelford’s intervention, the war dance had none of its current brutal majesty. So he taught his peers how to perform ‘Ka Mate’ right. Perhaps that is his greatest contribution of all.