Winning Days

11th December 2011

In the wee small hours of Monday 24th October 2011, my feet slowed to a halt somewhere along Commerce Street, downtown Auckland, and I took a moment to survey the scene around me. To my right, a gaggle of shrieking girls in teetering heels and bounteous mascara. To my left, a sweary horde of fist-clenching boys singing pitifully out of tune. Ahead of me, a maze of fidgeting queues stretching out from the doors of every bar and club. And down at my feet, a wretched teenager expunging the beery contents of his stomach impenitently onto the kerbside.

Upon absorbing these sights and sounds, my only thought was that I must have been transported back to Loughborough town centre on the last night out of term before Christmas. On further viewing, however, it became mercifully apparent that I wasn’t experiencing some nightmarish vision of my teenage years, but was indeed still in the Auckland I had come to love for its scarcity of binge-drinking hooliganism over the past 12 months. One tell-tale sign was the comically exaggerated war dance that suddenly broke out amongst the group of shirtless young men in front of me. Another was the overwhelming presence of black clothing, flags and face paint amongst the surrounding revellers. And then there were the forlorn-looking fellows in blue shirts and berets who trudged by looking as though their team had just lost the World Cup final…

It became clear to me then that New Zealand was having a party, a party to end all parties, a party to celebrate the Greatest Day in New Zealand History. I refer, of course, to the day when the All Blacks won the Rugby World Cup in their own back yard by a scarcely probable 9-8 score line against the French. For outsiders (of which I am inevitably still one), the sheer momentousness of this achievement was perhaps not immediately apparent. To put it simply though, the notion of New Zealand winning the biggest competition in the sporting calendar, in their own country, by the slenderest of margins, in the dying minutes of the game, with their captain a walking wounded and their star player forced out through injury, and against a team who had notoriously defeated them in the finals of two previous World Cups, was pretty much every Kiwi’s number one fantasy. Not any more. This happened, and not even against the odds, but in a manner that seemed so inevitable that it’s hard to believe God wasn’t colluding on the script with the soon to be re-elected Prime Minister, John Key.

Before and after the final, the New Zealand media talked a lot of guff about this outcome being their “destiny”, and were I not a bitter Pom still irked by England’s dismal exit from the competition two weeks’ previously, I’d probably be employing such hyperbole myself. Even so, it was impossible not to be swept along with the atmosphere on the night, so wild were the celebrations after the final whistle, when a combination of elation at the result and relief that the French (as had seemed likely for most of the game) were not to going ruin their dream again, manifested itself in the form of screams, cheers, fist pumping, hands in the air, table dancing and even nudity (though the less said about the man whose celebration entailed the impromptu removal of his jeans and underwear in the gents toilets, the better). I even found myself exclaiming “yes!!!” with such vigour that even a triple exclamation mark is understating it. Personally, I blame the Kiwi girlfriend.

After a year when an improbable succession of natural and manmade disasters had made New Zealanders rightfully ask themselves, “what have we done to deserve this?”, only the most hard-hearted foreigner would not have taken pleasure in seeing the country celebrate in such a manner – even it did mean that Auckland fleetingly resembled the booze-fuelled apocalypse of a British seaside town. As an immigrant here, I felt particularly privileged to have been able to experience it all first hand. I know several rugby fans back home who would have been mightily envious of me as they watched the game shivering in their dressing gowns and cradling cups of tea first thing in the British morning.

For us, the litany of potential options for watching the final was a bit overwhelming. Packed out sports club or quiet hotel bar? With family or friends? At home or in a central square? In the end, we did what any self-respecting Brit would do and headed for the pub.

I’ve always believed that there’s something perfectly aligned about pubs and live sport. The big screen displays, the jugs of ale, the big bowls of chips slathered with ketchup and mayonnaise… all these things contribute, but really, it’s about those moments of sense-defying euphoria when the scoring of a goal or conversion of a penalty kick results in a colossal outpouring of fist-pumping, hand-clapping, arms aloft emotion that the presence of others seems magnify ten-fold. And of course, the moment of triumph in a game of a World Cup final’s magnitude is all the sweeter.

New Zealand’s elation in the wake of the All Blacks’ sensational victory offered belated proof that Kiwis are every bit as capable of sporting fanaticism as we Brits. This has not always been obvious to me, for while New Zealanders talk about sport – well, rugby – a lot, their demeanour at live games would not always suggest they cared in quite the same way we do. Inevitably, this has as much to do with the different mindsets of football and rugby fans as it does with the cultural divergences between Kiwis and Brits, but New Zealanders themselves will often bemoan the lack of passion displayed by fans at live rugby games. While the crowds at British football matches can be intimidating to the uninitiated, few would argue with the almost religious fervour generated by fans getting behind (or slating) their team. Prior to the Rugby World Cup, by contrast, I found the atmosphere at the lives games I attended to be rather sedate. There was little in the way of singing and chanting; polite applause was more likely than the expletive-ridden tirades I was used to back home; and Mexican waves substituted the torrents of ref-directed abuse that soundtrack your typical footy match.

The locals won’t like me saying it, but some of the best atmospheres generated at the World Cup were at games involving teams other than the All Blacks – and I can testify to that myself after being nearly deafened by boisterous Highlanders at the England v Scotland group match. It was a strange tournament for the hosts in fairness. They knew from the start that they would most likely reach the latter stages of the competition, which meant that it was difficult for fans to get particularly excited by the early games against massively inferior opposition. One colleague of mine, whom I’m sure wouldn’t mind me calling a sports nut, was so unenthused by the prospect of New Zealand vs Japan that he recorded the game to watch back at a more convenient time. By the end of the tournament, the desperation to win had become so unbearable that All Blacks fans were watching games paralysed by nerves and unable to speak or cheer for fear of breaking the spell.

They needn’t have worried, of course. Sport is usually at its best when it’s unpredictable, but while we all knew the All Blacks’ triumph was “nailed on”, the Rugby World Cup of 2011 will still go down as one of my best ever sporting memories – which is saying something coming from a fan of team who played as dismally as England did.

The legacy of the tournament, though, goes way beyond my personal reminiscences and the sickening hangovers that those lairy revellers would have woken up to the morning after the final. I wouldn’t go as far as saying that it’s put New Zealand on the map – I’ll leave the clich├ęs to the hacks – but it’s certainly stirred consciousness of the place elsewhere in the world, and I doubt any travelling fan would have left with a bad word to say about it. Auckland, certainly, has reaped the benefits and has felt like a much grander city since the long-awaited makeovers of the Art Gallery and Wynyard Quarter, both of which were inspired to completion by the onset of the tournament. And the early signs seem to be good for the clutch of new bars, cafes and restaurants that threw their doors open to the influx of World Cup tourists – certainly, the new strip of eating and drinking establishments along the Viaduct were full to the brim when I walked past them on a recent Friday evening.

Ultimately, it’s really up to those of us who continue to live in this city to keep these places going now that the 80,000 tourists have gone home with their scrapbooks of happy memories. The rugby showed the city and the wider country at its best – let’s make sure we keep it that way. After all, it might be quite some time before New Zealand gets to experience such excitement and glory again. The next World Cup is being hosted in England after all…


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