Rugby cauldron starts bubbling
June 13, 2011
Tournament organiser Martin Snedden has declared the 2011 World Cup will be one New Zealanders are proud of © Getty Images
Rugby World Cup 2011 is just around the corner - the tournaments opening fixture between the All Blacks and Tonga at Auckland's Eden Park just three months away. In many parts of New Zealand the sense of anticipation is now tangible, the state of physical preparedness visible as the finishing touches are put to the various pieces of infrastructure which will either transport or accommodate visitors to this exquisitely beautiful country.
While the Christchurch earthquakes reduced the city to rubble and took out of play one of the World Cup's major playing centres, RWC organisers have gone quietly about their business of absorbing and compensating for the non-participation of one of the world's greatest rugby playing regions.
Arrivals at Auckland's International Airport will be greeted by upgrades in the terminal and in the brand new accommodation available outside; upgrades to the roads in Auckland city and on the fringes of the city are intended to ease the traffic flow in a seriously congested city; the finishing touches are being applied to a number of stadia around the country. At least 60,000 international visitors are expected to come to New Zealand, 2,000 of them media personnel, and the Auckland region alone is expected to benefit from an injection of NZ$315m (£157m) to the local economy. At a time of economic hardship, and times are very hard indeed, this is not a negligible amount
On the various TV channels and in the newspapers, the multinationals and Australasian big businesses are beginning to make their presence felt. All Blacks from the present and recent past seem to be queueing up to endorse every type of product from motor vehicles to deodorants; a commercial bonanza which is only just beginning to unfold and gain momentum.
However, this World Cup will be about much more than the commercial spin-offs, and so it should be. The IRB was much criticised in awarding the tournament to New Zealand, clearly the world's leading rugby playing nation but an isolated couple of islands in the South Pacific with a population of less than four million people. The commercial opportunities would have been much greater in taking the tournament to somewhere like Japan, where the game is struggling to establish itself but which might have benefitted from the exposure a World Cup would have given it.
I suspect that visitors to New Zealand this coming September/October will experience a culture where the rugby is immersed in the history and development of the country in a way it would be impossible to witness anywhere else, with the possible exception of Wales. Away from the corporate centres, the relative glitz and the glamour, the high stakes associated with a professionalised global sport, visitors will be able to glimpse and savour everyday New Zealanders clinging onto what they call 'grassroots' rugby and in the process celebrate their local culture and how rugby still contributes to that.
Whangarei is a small city about two and a half hours north of Auckland, situated on the Pacific North East coast and will be the World Cup's most northerly staging post. The drive north takes the traveller through rolling farmland and glorious coastal scenery. Whangarei will host two World Cup pool games, Canada v Tonga and Tonga v Japan; in rugby playing terms nothing to get too excited about. Except that in this sprawling, sparsely populated semi sub-tropical region, rugby has really struggled to survive the introduction of professional rugby and anything that can be done to generate interest is welcomed.
While North Auckland, as it was in the days before professionalism, and now Northland, has always produced top rugby talent they have also always struggled to resist the playing and living opportunities in the larger metropolitan areas. Legendary All Black scrum-half Sid Going (who will never forget his duels with the equally legendary Gareth Edwards on the British and Irish Lions' 1971 tour?) can still be seen prowling the touchlines of Northland in the winter months barking orders to his beloved Mid Northern club side.
About 40 minutes south of Whangarei there are a number of coastal farming settlements around Bream Bay, named by Captain James Cook when he passed this way at the end of the eighteenth century. At the southern end of Bream Bay is a beautiful but curious little township called Waipu where Canadian visitors to the World Cup can expect a big welcome in September.
The first European settlers landed here in the early 1850's, a strange, cult-like band led by the aged and severe Rev. Norman McLeod. They had left Scotland for Nova Scotia in search of religious freedom and a better life but many of them found the climate too harsh in Canada. But they stayed 30 years before heading to Australia and then on to Auckland and then Waipu. Their story is told in a beautifully refurbished museum and the links to Nova Scotia remain strong, with a number of community events in recent years hosting visitors from Canada. Waipu is also the home of a famous and long-running Highland Games, held every new year and attracting competitors from all around the world.
In advance of Canada's September 14 match against Tonga, the Waipu community is planning a welcome for Canadian, and indeed all visiting, rugby supporters. It is hoped the Canadian side, or at least some members of it, will be in attendance and it is intended to be a great communal celebration with the Waipu Rugby Club available as the watering hole and the rugby grounds available for camping and camper vans.
The Highland Pipe Band will lead the Highland Dancing and there will be a photographic exhibition - 'Men in Kilts' - recording the community's kilted rugby links with a club in Southland. Then there will be transport provided to the Canada v Tonga game, if anyone is sober enough to get on the coach.
I cannot imagine any of this happening if the tournament had been awarded to Japan!
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