25th September 2011
My first live game of rugby was a 6 Nations test between England and Wales at Twickenham in spring 2004. Such was my indifference towards the sport at the time that I wouldn't have known what the 6 Nations was, let alone considered attending a game, were it not for my dad winning a pair of tickets in a work raffle and asking me to be his plus one. My utter absence of interest in rugby stemmed, I think, from my heroically unsporty teenage self being forced to play it for three excruciating years at secondary school, and the bitter memories of chapped winter thighs and ill-fitting gum shields that remained seared on my brain. For all that, trips to London were still something of an event for me in those days, and the game gave me an opportunity to see a side of the capital I hadn’t previously experienced. In short, I wasn’t going to turn the offer down.
As it turned out, my first game of rugby wasn’t bad. Which isn’t to say it was great, or life-changing, but it definitely wasn’t the macho bore-fest I had been expecting. I even found myself cheering when England’s Olly Barclay converted a penalty kick. And something must have sparked in me that white-skied afternoon in South West London, for while my prior interest in rugby had been such that I hadn’t even bothered to get out of bed for England's triumphant 2003 World Cup final, I subsequently began to watch - and even enjoy - the occasional game on the TV. Nevertheless, rugby remained a mere anemone in the context of my passion for football, and I didn’t attend another live game until I arrived in a country where ignoring rugby is as easy as finding a pre-made pack of sandwiches.
Holly warned me early on in our relationship that I was going to have to up my game when it came to knowledge of rugby, particularly if I ever wanted to impress her dad or, indeed, have any sort of meaningful conversation with another male in her home country. And so it has come to pass, for New Zealand, to put it mildly, is rugby bonkers. Here football (or “soccer” as Kiwis call it) is just an itch on the skin of the all-conquering Goliath that is rugby, and any naysayers may as well board the first flight out of Auckland airport, such is the unwavering fervour with which Kiwis discuss, debate and dissect their favourite sport. Inevitably, some of their enthusiasm has begun to wear off after almost a year of being bludgeoned into conversations about it, and I can now honestly say that I can even enjoy watching games that don't involve England.
Of no little encouragement in this has been the arrival here of the Rugby World Cup at a time when the All Blacks are regarded by even the most cynical fan as the finest rugby side on the planet. If it doesn’t happen for them this year, it probably never will. The build-up was in progress even before we arrived in Auckland last spring and had reached fever pitch by early September, when the whole country was counting down the days to the first game, New Zealand vs Tonga, at the national stadium Eden Park. Though I had enjoyed following the previous World Cup in 2007 - not least because England somehow contrived to get all the way to the final for a second tournament running - I can’t say the prospect of being in NZ for the 2011 competition had particularly moved me when I first began to contemplate emigrating over here early last year. To be honest, I was more concerned about missing the excitement of London hosting the 2012 Olympics, not to mention the prospect of getting out of bed at some godforsaken hour to watch the inevitable failure of the England football team at the European Championships next year. Now that I’m here though, and experiencing it all first hand, I know I’m making a lot of my sport-loving friends back home salivatingly envious.
It’s fair to say that New Zealand has done everything it could and more to make this tournament a memorable one, even if the draw has served up some of the greatest mis-matches I’ve ever seen from a competition that purports to be pitting the world’s best teams against one another. Eden Park is a mighty fine stadium, and the addition of a unfeasibly high temporary seating stand at one end has afforded it a sense of scale that befits its hosting of one of the world’s biggest sporting competitions. However, it is not just the venues, which include the stunning glass-roofed Otago Stadium in Dunedin, but the whole country that has embraced the tournament and provided the estimated 80,000 World Cup tourists with a scrapbook-full to write home about.
Auckland, for one, has been transformed in recent weeks. The streets, often grey and humdrum during the cold winter months, have been decked out with a myriad of posters, flags and awnings, with each area of the central city assigned one of the 20 competing nations to support. The first morning that I drove down Ponsonby Road and saw that the street had been turned overnight into a mini-England with St George’s Crosses hanging above every shop window, I was just a little moved.
Most impressive of all is the work that’s been done down by the waterfront. One of the first things that struck me about Auckland when I first came here was how disconnected it felt from the water that surrounds it. Uniquely placed, with bays to the north, south and, a little further out, to the west, you’d imagine from the map that this would be a city at one with its bordering seas, but instead it has so turned inwardly on itself that if you were dumped blind in the middle of the CBD you’d have next to no idea you were only a few minutes’ walk away from the ocean.
In fairness, the downtown harbour area does dazzle in parts. The Viaduct, with its gleaming white apartment blocks and cruise liner architecture, is the perfect setting for a mid-afternoon stroll in the peak of summer, and its winding waterside pathways play host to some of the city’s finest wining and dining establishments. Further along, the stately Ferry Building stands proud as a remembrance of Auckland’s colonial past, while the dirty rainbow of metal crates offloading from docked container ships is nothing if not imposing. But compared to the likes of Sydney and Brighton, cities that embrace and celebrate their closeness to the sea and offer their residents and visitors whole travel guides of seafront shopping, drinking and eating experiences, Auckland has been something of a disappointment.
That could all be about to change though with the opening of the Wynyard Quarter, a formerly derelict area to the west of the Viaduct that has been transformed into a humming patchwork of open spaces, industrial walkways, and high class bars and restaurants. The defunct chemical storage cylinders, far from disrupting the views out over the Waitemata Harbour, lend the area a unique atmosphere, their monolithic silhouettes providing a photographer’s dream as they tower like dark satanic mills above daytripping families and evening revellers alike.
Opened only weeks before the Rugby World Cup, the Wynyard Quarter has gone some way towards restoring some semblance of harmony between the city and its waterfront. It even boasts a heritage tram to carry travellers the almost laughably short distance between the Auckland Fish Market in Freeman’s Bay and the Viaduct. And despite being only an occasional destination for most Aucklanders in the past, the waterfront has come alive spectacularly during the first weeks of the Rugby World Cup. The day of the opening ceremony and first game between the All Blacks and Tonga, it seemed as if the entire city had descended upon it, and from early afternoon, when generous bosses began to let distracted staff out the office early, through to the late evening kick-off, a thick throng of people stretched all the way from the new Wynward Quarter café-housing bubble dome to the purpose-built fan zone centrepiece The Cloud over by the Ferry Building. When I arrived there with a group of work friends around 4 in the afternoon, the sheer mass of people was overwhelming – it was like being back on Oxford Street on the last shopping weekend before Christmas. Worse was the fact that the new strip of bars and restaurants in the Wynyard Quarter was patently not set up for the sudden influx of several thousand ecstatic tourists demanding unending beer. Taking one for the team, I valiantly attached myself to a forebodingly tutting queue and spent the next 45 minutes failing to get served by the under-supported bar staff. When I finally reached the front of the queue, I was told to my despair that I was at a section of the bar where they were only taking table orders. I used to be accustomed to such misery in the UK but after nearly 12 months of hassle-free pint buying, this represented a proverbial kick in the gonads. Fortunately, my powers of negotiation had not been dimmed by a year of being surrounded by people being awfully nice to each other, and following a stern word to the barman, I was able to escape with doubled-up pints for my entire group.
Such incidents were typical of a night when Auckland came close to collapsing under the weight of expectation, but crowd control aside, this was a glorious day in NZ history and when I finally got to stand, pint in hand, and admire the view out to sea surrounded by more people that I ever thought I’d see gathered in one place in New Zealand, and later, when a spectacular firework display exploded out of the Sky Tower and electrified the city skyline, I was grateful to be part of a little piece of history.
Ironically, the rugby itself has somehow seemed like an afterthought in the context of so much else going on in the city, and the fact that most of the tournament’s big guns have so effortlessly trounced the opposition has meant many of the games have been little more than training ground exercises. That could all change this weekend, when I will be lucky enough to witness a real clash of the titans, England v Scotland, at Eden Park. For a long time I’ve felt very far away from home, but now, with the eyes of the world and millions in my home country watching New Zealand on their TV screens, I suddenly feel like I’m at the centre of the universe.