KICK OFF

Friday 9th September 2011. Days to go until the Rugby World Cup: 0.

At about 1600, The Rambling Rose and its pilots trundle into the South-Eastern city of Dunedin (the Celtic word for Edinburgh, which tells you something about the country’s heritage), and into the centre, where there’s an obvious carnival atmosphere, including a house-party roadside where 3 guys hold up cardboard signs saying ‘HONK FOR ANAL’.

So of course I honk. When in Rome…

Shortly we arrive at the Dunedin Holiday Park, near an area called Vauxhall (the part of London I left about a week ago), and are directed to bay #1 – ominous perhaps? – where for a couple of hours we sit, by the entrance, sipping tea (naturally) and watching the procession of cars and campervans slither in. The site is rammed, predominantly with English, but a few other nations including a noticeable appearance by Los Pumas – the Argentinians.

We head to the Dunedin Pirates rugby club round the corner from the site, where a few hundred locals and tourists are squeezed in to watch the opening ceremony on a big screen, and of course the first fixture: New Zealand vs Tonga. The latter are the underdogs, being the Kiwi equivalent of the Scilly Isles, but let’s not forget that they have some thoroughbred rugby pedigree – the legend that is Jonah Lomu is of Tongan origin (DEFECTOR!). However, this should be a comfortable warm-up for the hosts.

As the throng watch the introduction – over-long and over-choreographed as they all are these days – there’s a bristle of anticipation, not just from the NZ and Tongan fans but from everyone, from the kids seated at the front to the Argie wearing a Mascherano football top, to the friendly drunk next to us. Indeed there’s been a palpable sense of something special around the country all day, with central Auckland reportedly teeming, and a general sod-off-work-at-lunchtime Friday feeling. The fireworks die down, someone shouts ‘Play the bloody game!’, the teams come out to excited cheers, the anthems are sung, and the Tongans finally kick off the 7th Rugby World Cup… and then the sound cuts out.

Not that anybody notices for a while due to the roar that fills the room – well they’ve been waiting almost six years for this day – but fortunately it’s promptly rectified, and not a moment too soon, as the All Blacks are on the attack and soon enough open the scoring with a penalty, with a try soon after that. Followed by quite a few more tries, as they play rugby more akin to 7s than 15s.

With the break still some time away, I take a quick trip to the Gents, where I overhear the following father-and-son conversation from one of the cubicles:

“Hurry up”
“Why?”
“Cos we’re missing the rugby!”

And that’s how things are here. Watching the rugby always takes precedence over watching your son have an awkward shit.

Back to the game, and the islanders concede a couple more tries before scoring a penalty on the stroke of halftime. But the game’s already over, the Kiwis may as well play their Under 16s…

Who was it that said it’s a game of two halves? Not a rugby player, I know, but that old soccer adage most definitely applies here, as the All Blacks get complacent and fluff some decent opportunities, while the Tongans fight back and make a fair game of it in the second half, applying solid forward pressure and bullying their opponents into conceding, to much applause from the mixed crowd in the room. But the home nation score another fluid try and spoil the Reds’ party, finishing with a score of 41-10.

So a comfortable win in the end, but not as crushing as was hoped, and from an England point of view there are some positives to take from this:

The Kiwis lacked a killer instinct for parts. Ok, they thought they’d pretty much won and weren’t focusing as they might do for bigger games, but they should’ve sealed this match much sooner.
Secondly, judging by what Tonga did in the run up to their try, England would ruin their scrum.
And thirdly… Never thought I’d say it, but if I had a choice between France and New Zealand in the Quarter Finals, on this performance… I might just choose the All Blacks.

And so to bed. FOUR matches tomorrow, three of them of little consequence, one of them huge.

BRING ON THE ARGIES!

20110909-113446.jpg