By Mark Freemon
On the morning of 11 September, as he is sometimes prone to do, my five year old Joseph climbed into my bed. Often he has some pressing question to propose or a simple request for the breakfast menu and most times I am altogether groggy during his initial transmission. Two days after the All Black’s opening match against Tonga he spoke a collection of words, so clear and true that I immediately sat up to look and listen. “Look daddy, there’s a trophy on the wall.” was what I heard.
Sure enough, the morning sun had turned the corner on the city side of the house and cast a fractured beam through one small space in the still, closed drapes. There on the southern wall, in perfect silhouette, was a golden “cup shaped” form quivering in the pre noon light. It was a sign for sure but what did it mean. Our holy grail of hope is a squat, golden chalice called The William Webb Ellis Trophy and if this wasn’t a heartening sign from the skies, I don’t know what it was.
The opening weekend of the tourney, 8 games, was on and over before we knew it. New Zealand beat Tonga quite handily and then spent the next seven days being raked over the coals by the local press. Apparently, after the first half’s displays of sublime running rugby, it was noted the AB’s dropped the ball several times and “allowed” the Tongans to score ten points. It’s not like the Tongans weren’t allowed to try and after all they are LARGE people who possess a STRONG will and play rugby like Polynesian Vikings – I mean this in the kindest of way. However, the New Zealand’s expectation and ensuing media backlash just shows you the hardness and complexity of life in the BLACK SHIRT.
In the other contests a more positive trend seemed to be on display. The “tier two” nations were really giving it heaps and making a real contest of their games against formidable opposition. Let’s all hope these performance spikes are the natural progression of those developing programs pursuing professional results and not the result of underdone preparation, or declining form on the part of the more prominent national sides. Nonetheless, points on the board are what the fans want to see and most would’ve been quietly happy with the opening weekend’s display.
Unfortunately, it’s quickly apparent (in the eyes of the IRB all rugby teams are NOT created equal) the IRB do not hold all competitors equal. Tonga fronted the All Blacks in the opening encounter of the Cup on Friday, 9 September – 8:30pm. On the 14th, 5pm, they were again locked in battle vs Canada. The quick, five day, turnaround saw the Canuks out last and outplay the Tongans in a close encounter 25-20 to Canada.
So finally, the near six year build up reached a climax in the seconds following that opening kick-off. Unfortunately, the local media’s focus on Friday night’s transport mayhem and accompanying crowd chaos has distracted some of the rugby focus. These unfortunate events and their sensational coverage highlighted some severe oversights on the part of the event organizers and some above average bad behavior on the part of a SMALL PORTION OF OUR POPULATION.
Let’s just say, opening night of the tournament opened up a whole can of local worms. Yes we have, in Auckland, an “aged” rail network and many challenging transport issues that need urgent attention. Yes we have a covey of inept and quite comically amusing folks who masquerade as politicians and local council members. Yes again, we have a young population who enjoys a bourbon and cola, or thirty, on most Friday nights. And yes, in hindsight, it might actually have been a wee bit foolish to invite EVERYONE – and I mean everyone – to come and party in a Cloud, on a pier next to a shed.
There were reports of citizens drunk and disorderly @ 3pm – five and a half hours before kick-off. I call that prepared! Even though this sort of loose behavior does little more than provide gripping footage for our comedy series, Police 10-7. It does not send the right impression to thousands of well behaved rugby guests who, when home, get up to similar, dodgy behavior. No disrespect intended…
There were eyewitness accounts of fighting on the trains, people urinating in the streets, people attempting to board moving trains and a police estimate (cuz they coulda never counted ‘dem all) had a crowd of 60,000 plus in vicinity of “the Cloud” and Queens Warf. The main party venue’s capacity is 13,000. Though most Kiwis would call that a reasonable and rational overcrowding of a venue, calmer heads prevailed and the water cannons, tazers, rubber bullets, tear gas and batons got handed out somewhere near half time.
Even some of the waka paddlers were set upon by a band of rude youths who obviously have a death wish. Keep that sort of stupidity up boyos, and your nightmare may come true. The best journalistic dispatch referred to several fans sighted while riding on the outside of one of the locomotives. Obviously the coaches were well full and these would have obviously been supporters from Wales who are mad keen Thomas the Tank Engine fiends.
OK. OK. Maybe it isn’t such a great look. I admit that we excessively flouted the local liquor ban, broke train rule 111 several times and generally acted in such a manner that most of mainland Europe’s leaders are now happier these deep, South Pacific islands are so very, very far away.
But our focus has always been on winning this damn thing. That’s why Henry and Co got to keep their jobs. That’s why Richie’s still captain and back for his third bite of the cherry. We didn’t know we had to behave and be host like as well. Maybe we’ve been a wee bit pre occupied with getting the playing mix right and ensuring things run smoothly on the field to remember which side the forks and knives go on. Because, this time, once the smoke clears and “the Cloud” is nothing more than a smoldering frame grotesquely protruding from the waters of the Waitemata, we will have the Cup.
We the people of New Zealand actually preferred a scenario where nineteen teams arrived to do battle against the All Blacks, without supporters and were cheered on – or not – by stadiums filled with only Kiwis. Visiting players would be free from the heightened expectations of all those accompanying, adoring fans and snooping journalists and left alone to get on with the art of playing rugby. Of course we’d take care of them like they were our own. We’d have them over for smoked fish and fresh scallops, scones and warm tea – cause that’s exactly what we do for those people who love to play our game. That’s what WE thought this whole “stadium of four million”, that they’ve been ramming down our throats, was all about.
Then one week before the games we get hit with a national memo saying “Do this, Don’t do that, Don’t scratch there, Don’t talk about the war, Take the trains, Leave sheep jokes at your local pub’s back garden, Take the trains and Whatever you do, don’t slurp your beer in front of the lovely ladies from Italy.”
Well I am here to tell ya, as a guest myself, that we better all “rub the bhudda” and hope the positive Cup scenario continues to unfold for our beautiful, host nation. Otherwise no amount of threats from the NZ POLICE, the NZ SAS, Winston Peters, the United Brotherhood of TEAMSTERS or soft pleas from that well meaning band of do gooders at the UNITED NATIONS will keep this nation and its people from creating a specific amount of trouble and turmoil that will make the shambles that occurred on “opening night” look like a five year old’s birthday party. Blame our only indiscretion, so far, on the minister in charge of the rugby ball and on all those “super city” slickers. To our guests, we promise to be better behaved and more prepared from here on out! That was just a trial run and we now see which pieces and parts need oilin’. It’ll be sweet as and good as gold from here on in.
What a difference a week, plus three days, makes.
The first full week of the 2011 Rugby World Cup is history and games are quickly peeling away like falling, autumn leaves. Most teams have now completed their second round matches and pool tables are quickly shifting teams up and down their respective ladders. Wales and Samoa absolutely rammed each other in true demolition derby style this afternoon in Hamilton.
For extended periods of the game, the Samoan focus seemed more about the hit and less about promoting the ball. The physical confrontation has always been an integral element of the island game. However, most of these guys now play professionally and possess the skills and knowledge necessary to take the island game to the next level. On more than one occasion, Samoa had Wales in their sights and lack of discipline or a failure to read the game prevented them from gaining, sustaining and defending a lead.
The Welsh are not easily intimidated and bring their own, grind it out, smash mouth, running rugby style. The Welsh are sound people from a rugged, green country and have their own proud, rugby history. Sponsored by Brains, the brewing magnate, the Welsh came to New Zealand to exorcize a few of their own rugby ghosts. Currently coached by clever man from the Waikato, the running leeks weathered the Polynesian abuse, escaped with a win and will spend the next few days @ the chiropractors in Moolooland.
Despite the importance of this Cup to me, I’ve been slightly “involved” while working a “shut-down” in Glenbrook’s BHP Steel Mill. The iron plant may not be nearly as happening as Queen’s Wharf’s “party central” or quite as majestic and sporty as Eden Park – the iron plant, turbine hall and boiler floors retain an industrial yet rustic charm not commonly seen in this majestically green country! Yeah right…
Let’s just say we (me and several hundred other dusty and soot covered blokes) are involved in work necessary to this nation’s well being and represents our contribution towards the national kick-start of the economy. Not to worry, I have kept an eye on the prize and an ear to the ground and watched, talked, listened and asked as much about rugby as one might possibly do in the tournament’s first ten days.
The dirt and the game…Our opening night stumbles become a HUGE local topic for the first full week of the tournament. Our national press machine – radio, TV and newspapers – devoted way more ink and airtime to this “fumbling of the ball” episode than was necessary. Come on people, there were games to be covered, grab you pencils, notepads and press passes and go to the damn rugby because you guys are getting almost as predictable as the morons that you are trying to get dirt on! All the papers had maps with times and little train icons and intricate bullet points of what happened to whom, where and when. It was as if they were reporting on the Normandy invasion and not some random drink fest adjacent the waters of our fair harbor. Miraculously and thankfully, no one was harmed.
Meanwhile, all involved political commissars were doing the “Texas two step”, working on their alibis and slinging manure at anything that moved. The most media savvy citizen, needed cue cards and voice prompts to keep on top of this merry go round of political back stabbings.
Luckily for those poor surrounded, and soon to be unemployed, town councilors, the English rugby team took a page from our own gaffe ridden story and found themselves in a wee bit of turmoil and the focus of another worthless, news story. God and only Martin Johnson know how to justify to their adoring fans and ministers back home a training session filled with shot glasses, dwarf throwing and an overly friendly “friend of the family” on CCTV working out some scrum maneuvers with their captain. I don’t know if the Queen’s on the national team’s selection panel, but it might just be that the Palace now also rules the rugby field when it comes to captains who step over the line. Unlike the good ole days, in the era of twits on tweets, what goes on tour ends up on Monday’s front page?
Traffic had settled down a wee bit after the chaotic scenes in the lead up to the cup. Now with the games underway and all the teams settled in, you’d expect some sort of normalcy on the motorway. Since some of us are actually managing a few hours at work, keeping bosses happy and the economy ticking over, there are steady streams of cars during the morning and afternoon rush hours.
However, these games and fan hysteria has seen a growing fleet of mutant vehicles creeping round the slow lanes and back streets of our city’s motorways and suburbs! Most are simply and tastefully decked out with the national flag of the driver/owner. However, I am starting to recognize that some of our beloved citizens are losing the plot and forgetting that there are specific road user rules that prevent one from: collecting and then attaching, with duct tape, accessories like lounge furniture, flag poles, beer fridges, large velvety framed artwork, and any random multi-layered appendages that eventually give the roof of your Bongo Van (if you squint) the appearance of an Battle Cruiser from Star Wars. Obviously, these disguised motors are decked out in the national colours of the team they support. Some are so laden with flag like bunting that it’s difficult to see if there any people inside and makes one wonder how, with all the high winds we’ve been enduring, they’ve managed to keep it on the road. It’s obviously part and parcel of being a rugby mad supporter in a rugby mad nation.
I will leave you with this happy vision. On the Saturday night following the All Black’s dismantling of Tonga, I headed to Otahuhu’s Pacific Steel for the 5pm – 5am night shift. Along the approaches to the mill, on James Fletcher Drive is a leafy green, working class suburb that sits adjacent the headwaters of the Manukau Harbour. Nearby, there’s a massive shunting yard for the trains, a huge grocery warehouse, the steel mill, a sizeable Tongan church, several small dairies and hundreds of one story, wood sided, 65 year old houses. There are plenty of proud Polynesians who stay here and loads of Tongans.
They too love their ruby and the boys from Vava’u, Tongatapu and Tofua who come here to represent the King and their island nation. It was a clear evening and as twilight approached I passed a house that had a Tongan flag, atop a flagpole, lashed to the branches of a native tree and sticking out and above the surrounding canopy. I was impressed, cause the tree was big and the flag placed high up.
I rolled past this scene only to be more impressed by another property, same side of the road, 100 metres further on. It too had a Tongan flag attached to a hastily fashioned pole-like appendage. Only difference, their tree was bigger and their flagpole rested another five to seven metres higher. I was well surprised and then completely floored by the next home I approached. Way up high, on what appeared to be New Zealand’s version of a mighty Oak, was a wee flag pole and Tongan flag atop a massive, Everest of a tree. The climber must’ve been well liquored, well proud, or well skilled. Possibly all three… And that’s the beauty of these games and this game. Despite the final score line, we all live to play another day against other competitor. Improve on the weak, build on the strong and the results will follow. Support your team with your words, your smile, your actions and your heart and the mana, regardless of the score line, this loyalty brings to your community will be tenfold. Those three flags represent this unspoken devotion to country, family and team. This is the island way and it’s fitting these games have finally, after twentyfour years, returned home.
More from Mark Freemon in New Zealand at the Rugby World Cup
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The Nike Tiempo is a solid rugby cleat and one of few styles still made from full-grain natural leather.
The Gilbert Blitz 8S rugby cleat is a great cleat at a great price of $69.99. Get a new pair of cleats today.
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The NEW All Blacks 2013/14 jersey has arrived at World Rugby Shop. Dare to wear the colors of the All Blacks.