This is the day before my 46th birthday and day one of the tournament. The faithful have been waiting since 1987 for this day’s arrival and the Cup’s return.
Midday on the 8th I receive a call during my lunch break. At first I almost didn’t answer the phone – didn’t recognize the number or particularly wish to waste time on what’s traditionally the shortest half hour of the day!
In the end I took the call. On the other end of the line was Caroline Lynch, a close family friend. She quickly asked if I’d like to attend the opening ceremonies and the opening game @ Eden Park on Friday night! At first I thought it might be some sort cruel prank organized by my fun loving wife. Then I thought possibly that I’d misheard her request and possibly she asked if I’d babysit while she and Kieron took Helen to the rugby. After years of construction, my hearing isn’t what it once was and Helen’s certain I’ve long suffered from selective deafness and painted on ear syndrome.
Despite an acute case of the stutters, I replied that “of course I would love to go”, contemplated which child I’d offer as a gift just in case the ticket owner changed their mind and hurriedly drafted a contract whereby I’d pledge my mowing skills - twice weekly - for the entirety of the 2011 spring/summer!
I hung up the phone and stared vacantly across a room full of soot covered engineers and riggers. I could not believe my luck, paused, smiled, looked back down at my sandwich and slowly finished my lunch.
Twenty-six hours later, one American, one New Zealander and two Englishmen packed into a French SUV and headed North on State Highway 1. The day was absolutely intoxicating. Clear skies, light winds and heaps of sunshine drenched the Auckland isthmus!
Our minister of tourism could not have asked for or created a better weather scenario on which to launch these games. Estimates spoke of up to 85,000, offshore visitors attending these games at one point or another. Those guests in Auckland on the 9th would’ve experienced a first rate, September day.
At the best of times, Auckland’s weather is a mixed bag. After all, we are but two wee islands adrift in a HUGE, tempestuous, southern ocean. But today, as if to allow these games their golden, opening moment in the sun; the seas were calm and the sky threatened nothing!
Within minutes of my collection we, sponsor’s beer in hand, happily joined the steady stream of traffic on State Highway 1 and rolled Northward from the southern suburbs.
In the months leading up to the games, the New Zealand government and local council had encouraged all… “Take the trains!”, “Don’t drive!” and (bloody make sure you idiots who never pay us any attention) “Take the trains” and “Don’t leave too late!”
Since all mothers routinely use schedules and juggle multiple tasks, I expected Caroline to have had us mobile with plenty of time to spare. Caroline is a mom and must’ve also been a Girl Guide, because pick up was shifted forward by an hour and left us with exactly enough time to do everything we needed to do pre-game – but at a leisurely pace.
The commute in was enjoyable and the Tongan wagon train of vans and large sedans gave the trek North something of a Mardi Gras atmosphere except insert Polynesians in Bongo Vans and a massive amount of flag waving.
If you viewed the procession from an educated distance, you got the immediate feeling that the collection gathered must’ve all been heading to the same locale. It was as if, no other traffic – but rugby traffic – had been allowed on the motorway this fateful afternoon. Proud of their heritage and excited about the event, we all slowly rolled towards the city waving flags, honking horns and smiling at those passing by. The Tongans were easy to spot – big people with even bigger smiles. I laugh when I think about their flag – a red cross on a patch of white and another big field of red. In an ominous manner – it spoke of the possible need for first-aid for some unlucky All Black during their upcoming contest at Eden Park.
Fellow rugby disciple David Lynch lives in Iceland, works in Hungary and is the reason I’m offered a spare ticket. As time and traffic roll past, he explains that Reykjavik has recently founded Iceland’s first rugby club. While we discuss the finer points of European rugby and French strawberries, Caroline effortlessly navigates our way through the orderly, pageant-like procession of automobiles full of adoring fans. In what seemed to be mere minutes since standing on my deck in Hunua, we are docked in a Newton parking garage and lightly meander our way up the pedestrian “fan trail” – heading for Eden Park and several beer joints along the way. Very pleasant. Very simple. Effortless.
By contrast, it was edge of your seat stuff @ the city’s central business district. The party down by the waterfront had turned feral quite early and by the time we had discreetly absorbed our first Guinness, “party central” and much of the region’s rail network were gripped by scenes of extreme overcrowding. At some distance behind us a ground swell of chaos built steadily and like a bunch of druids off to Stonehenge we continued steadily our trek to Eden Park.
By 6:30 pm I was in my seat: section 302, row M seat 13 watching the fading light disappear beyond the Waitakeres and quietly tucked into warm lamb and rosemary pie and snacked on a cup full of accompanying, hot chips.
By this time they were burning virgins in the city and several thousand Pirate types were wandering the streets, drooling and looking for a bar to broadside. As twilight faded into darkness, the authorities were struggling to maintain order, Vikings had taken the town hall and the scene was quickly starting to resemble that Mikey Jackson’s Thriller video – without the fancy dance scene. While the undead stumbled up and down our streets, the “mass” transit system was frozen by a series of unforeseen (only God knows why) and unplanned chain reactions. As we quickly counted down the minutes till game time, a few thousand hapless punters were still frozen in transit.
Luckily for those who’d lucked out and pursued alternate transport, the pre match entertainment had been practiced at least a half a dozen times and from the amount of frilly props, trained security and smiling police present; it was painfully obvious that the stadium event organizers had done this sort of thing once or twice previously.
I know, I know – I can hear you asking, “Didn’t the authorities make contingency plans? Wasn’t there a Plan B or alternate option open once things turned pear shaped?” If there was a plan, of sorts, it had been hastily scribbled on a cocktail napkin many months ago during a “planning session” and quite possibly had been left on the inside pocket of a suit headed for the drycleaners or the bedside table of some “lucky” legal secretary. This obvious oversight was easily the rotten work of either the local government organizers or those national level government types who enjoy meddling when common sense is required. Either way, at some moment in the future, someone, somewhere will be held accountable and used for tackling practice by the media and legions of talk back jocks. In the end it didn’t take long to expose the woeful oversights of the two pronged thrust of a party held on a pier and adjacent a slow train to nowhere.
I can say little of the incredibly simple, yet complex opening ceremony that would do that incredible spectacle any meaningful justice. The display was kiwiana at its very best and strong testament to how resourceful and creative our best and brightest are. WETA rocks! Simple as that…
I can tell you exactly the number of doctors and nurses present at my first born Ella’s birth, I can recall in detail where I was when the Twin Towers fell, I can describe accurately the colour of the Auckland Harbour on the morning my boy Joseph was born and now I can include this rugby milestone in my roll call of precious, precious memories.
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