Meeting a stadium of four million
It feels like such a long time ago that we arrived in the murky cold of Wellington, way past midnight, to begin our expedition to this Rugby World Cup.
It wasn’t without a chuckle though that my first introduction to New Zealand, after 17 hours of flying, tired and just wanting to find a bed, was a single queue for foreign passports at the customs desk.
Here I stood wondering in a line about 20 deep - while the queue next door moved fast filled with New Zealand and Australians - if this country knew they had a World Cup. Making tourists wait after midnight was, after all, not the best way to welcome people to your country.
But how different things are in New Zealand six weeks later. As we gear up to a promising weekend of quarterfinals, I have been impressed by Martin Sneddon’s promise of a “stadium of four million people.”
At first we had chuckled about this, but six weeks in and I’ve got to commend New Zealanders for a fascinating, fabulous and wonderful Rugby World Cup. The tournament may be making a loss, and Steve Tew may be making an idiot of himself with his ridiculous threats of pulling the All Blacks from future editions, but the 2011 tournament has been a sight for sore eyes.
One of the lasting memories of my life – as I’m sure it is with everyone around 40 and up – is the impact that the 1981 Springbok rugby tour had on both New Zealand and South Africa. As an avid rugby history nut, I have studied books about the tour, spoken to several Boks who were there and had countless conversations with New Zealanders on the impact the tour had on their lives.
There was even a television movie – not a great visual feast mind you – called Rage on New Zealand’s channel one when we arrived about a love story between an undercover cop and a protester in the height of the '81 demonstrations. The storyline may have been weak, but it did portray a part of New Zealand that few in South Africa would have seen.
Back then of course, as a nine-year old, I was more worried about seeing the mighty Boks take on the All Blacks. I never understood the reasoning of someone wanting to throw flour bombs onto rugby players while a game was on. It was all a bit surreal.
I was reminded of how weird it was in a great conversation at the Petone Rugby Club outside Wellington a few weeks back, where the same Alan Hewson, who kicked the series-winning penalty, hosted us for a drink. The 1981 tour, we learnt, is now an integral part of New Zealand history, and Hewson often is asked by schools to relay his views.
Before this trip it was hard to imagine what an impact a protest march in Wellington would have, or a pitch invasion in Hamilton.
I think back also to some rugby books I have about the 1956 Bok tour, where photographs show the Boks being mobbed by thousands of fans in Palmerston North. In the hectic modern schedule of today, it is unthinkable to see a rugby team get such attention.
Sneddon’s promise of a stadium of four million has proved to be true. Wherever we’ve gone, from Auckland to New Plymouth, Rotorua to Matamata, Kiwis have opened their hearts to us and gone out of their way to make us feel happy.
They’ve regaled us with stories of past rugby glories, asked probing questions about the strength of the Bok team and even lamented on their own rugby heroes.
I know we’ve all laughed at the overreaction to Dan Carter’s injury, but consider that two days earlier the Dominion Post’s front page lead was “Why don’t kids walk to school?” and you can understand how the All Blacks can dominate a news cycle in these parts.
We were victims of crime – a smashed car window and a stolen iPod – but the way it was handled made us feel like every Kiwi was out to find the perpetrators for us. Even if the police went overboard by offering us “victim support” - it was a nice touch to show that someone cared.
My travelling colleague Gavin Rich likes to joke about my purchase of a cowbell, but I have to admit the Waikato Chiefs cowbells rang at Hamilton have always fascinated me. It is a memento that will be a good part of my home bar, and I was overwhelmed by the lady in Stirling Sports in Hamilton who not only offered to find one for me, but had it waiting two days later when we drove through the city on our way back to Taupo.
New Zealanders have opened their hearts to their visitors, and have hosted a magnificent Rugby World Cup so far. It is a beautiful country steeped in rugby history, filled with magnificent clashes with the Springboks and other great nations.
To see so much passion, so many happy faces and talk so much rugby has been magnificent in all these weeks that it is sad that we are at a point now where in the next few weeks teams we'll have to go home.
The stadium of four million has delivered a fantastic World Cup, one that will be remembered for years no matter who wins the trophy.
Now if I think back to 1981, I can’t imagine the way this country must have been torn in two by the Boks touring back then. I doubt if any rugby tour has had such a significant effect on a nation as that one did.
But looking forward to 2011, 30 years later, New Zealand stand firmly united behind their team, with a willingness to show the rest of the world their rugby soul.
For that they should be commended and hopefully, somewhere down the line, be allowed to host another one.