Auckland transformed on Saturday night. Perhaps even earlier, as the tidal wave of red began to make its presence felt towards the end of the working week. But late Saturday afternoon into the early evening, the city turned on one final hurrah for the Lions Tour 2017.
It’s taken the Big Little City a while to work out how to host events. Debate still rages about where its stadium should be. But after recent years have brought rugby and cricket world cups, Masters Games and triathlons, ATEED and the downtown public spaces are getting the hang of it.
Key roads were closed along the Viaduct and waterfront, allowing easy flow of patrons. A constant sea of red flowed, the odd costume accenting the colour. Many lion onesies. Some Union Jack suits. Men with leprechauns coming out of their pants (not a metaphor). Many chose to wear the blazer of their home rugby club over top of their Lions jersey.
Queens Wharf was a hive of activity. The designated Fan Zone catered for all. There was a separate Lions structure, which had provided a place for touring fans to meet each other throughout the tour. The Cross Bar (geddit?) was full to standing, both inside and out, with food trucks of various cuisine doing a roaring trade. Screens big and small showed the 2015 Rugby World Cup to distract from the nerves, especially for the locals. Upstairs, “The Terraces” awaited a crowd – some children had already secured their spot while parents casually imbibed at the back.
The Fan Zone also offered a trip back through New Zealand’s rugby history thanks to an exhibition of Peter Bush’s favourite images. Famous moments and faces were captioned to tell their story, and at times, Bush himself had been present to chat to. A trophy dome gave visitors the opportunity to view New Zealand’s “staggering array” of rugby trophies, which no doubt endeared us to our guests.
The paths and roads were pulsing with chants, songs and bagpipes. Constant bagpipes. Like telling time by the position of the sun, when the foot traffic began to head to Britomart, it was time to move on. You’d not want to be swimming against the tide. One jogger had terrible timing – or brilliant, depending if he intended to burn calories or soak up the atmosphere.
The beginning of the Fan Trail, its highlighted route full of dancers, face painting, art installations and friendly locals, was a popular attraction, however the short train ride from Britomart became an experience. Buoyant Brits and Irish were well-rehearsed in folk songs, and perhaps more improvised with others. “You’re hardly gonna believe us – we won the second test!” Call and response spread throughout the train carriage, while most locals sat with impressively stunned grins on their faces. We’ve not seen anything like this before. “We call on you Kiwis to sing us a song… Sing, sing or show us your ring!” A patriotic few stumbled through The Exponents – nowhere close to the tourists’ execution, but winning a hearty applause in appreciation of the attempt, if nothing else.
Arrival at Kingsland was met with loud cheers. Both sides were nervously excited, a decider at the Garden of Eden the stuff sporting dreams are made of. The anticipation outside the ground was palpable – something you’d think would’ve been somewhat watered down if the series wasn’t on the line. Inside, two lads from Cardiff told of their four-year long planning cycle; their travels to all three tests, with side trips to Dunedin, Queenstown, Christchurch and Rotorua. A trip of a lifetime, they said. And they wouldn’t have imagined they’d have the chance to win the series.
Full of that exact euphoria, the visiting fans brought with them a sample of what game day would be like in London, Cardiff, Dublin or Edinburgh. Eden Park could’ve easily been a Northern Hemisphere ground, red jerseys and chants outdoing black all round. And we Kiwis tried to match them where we could. I’ve never heard a better, more vocal Māori version of the national anthem – loud, punctuated and soaring, which is saying something of the effort, considering the skewed crowd numbers.
When the scores were tied, first at 12-12, and again at 15-15 with two minutes remaining, the Lions’ roar was deafening. And in stark contrast, when the ball went out in the far corner, the stadium collectively went silent. That’s it? That’s it. Shoulders dropped in disappointment. Relieved disappointment, if there is such a thing. And just then, the first drops of rain for the evening began to fall. As a Welsh lad embraced the local he’d been trading verbal barbs with, it was clear the rain wouldn’t dampen the spirits on a fun, memorable evening, where the result was almost secondary. For Kiwi fans witnessing the British and Irish sports passion, so much more vocal and jovial than our own, and for the travellers, who entered the stadium full of a hope they hadn’t predicted, leaving deflated but satisfied to not be packing a series loss in their bags.
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