OK, you got me. This post has nothing whatsoever to do with being gluten-free. I did warn you that I might well launch into other subjects from time to time, so here I am. Five years ago, against all expectations, New Zealand won the rights to host the 2011 Rugby World Cup using the marketing slogan “We’ll have a stadium of four million people”. We’re three weeks into the world cup and you know what? That slogan was completely and totally true.
Why am I so proud of what New Zealand has done? Yes, we held an outstanding opening ceremony. Yes, the quality of rugby has been fantastic. Yes, the coverage is excellent. Yes, we’ve coped with the IRB requirements for hosting the cup very well. Yes, the stories of New Zealanders helping out tourists in all sorts of ways are heartwarming. But what is the best thing? The best thing is the crowds that are turning out. I watched the Georgia versus Romania game on Wednesday night. It was held in Palmerston North and the local crowds showed up in Georgian and Romanian colours and cheered for those teams as if they were the All Blacks. The epic Ireland versus Australia game by all reports was like being at a test match at Lansdowne Road. I’m watching the England-Scotland game as I write and the crowd is a sea of Scottish or English supporters. Obviously some of these are tourists, as evidenced by the sheer number of campervans and rental cars on the road everywhere. A large majority though are Kiwis, choosing to lend their support to a team of their choice. And given our collective passion for rugby, the supporters are passionate.
Wandering through the Viaduct Harbour area – the Auckland “Fan zone” or “Party zone” – depending on the match of the day, you find appropriate colours, accents, even food (my mother-in-law reported a boulangerie down at the Viaduct the day of one of the French matches). As a long-time Auckland resident, I am accustomed to the criticism we receive for being a characterless, soulless city. We’ve proved that completely wrong. What a buzz it is to drive along a street (like O’Donnell Street in Mt Albert) and peer at the flags decorating a large number of the houses. How cool is it to drive past twenty or thirty cars in a row displaying flags for their team (or teams in some cases – today I saw a truck with the NZ, Fijian, Samoan and Tongan flags on it!)? How awesome is it to go down to the Viaduct Harbour on a Saturday afternoon and wander through the crowds, looking at the smiles on the faces, hearing the range of languages and accents, and seeing what a great time all these people are having. And the best thing? Just how many of those people are dyed in the wool Aucklanders – the very people accused of having no passion or being cynical.
So has the Rugby World Cup been worth the taxpayers’ dollars, the construction, the arguments, the organisation? Hell yes! The icing on the cake for New Zealand will be if we win the World Cup, but I can’t help but think that this tournament is one that everyone who has attended will remember. Certainly my kids will have vivid memories of it, and we didn’t even manage to get to a game. Even those who have no time for rugby seem to be drawn in, bit by bit. Back to the title of my post – I am thoroughly proud to be a Kiwi at this moment in time!