Super Rugby
Southern Derby a real Dunedin party experience
Will Macpherson at Forsyth Barr Stadium, Dunedin
February 22, 2015
Highlanders 20-26 Crusaders (Australia only)

I'd watched rugby at the Forsyth Barr in Dunedin before. Indeed it was a personal highlight of England's tour of New Zealand last year. Then, the haka had been electrifying, as Liam Messam barked and whooped, meaty palms crashing on meatier forearms and the meatiest of thighs. The low roof offered those barks, screams, slaps and claps Zimbabwean interest rates as they bounced back down and zipped back and forth around the room like a game of ping pong doubles. That night I thought rugby noise had reached fever pitch.

But I hadn't seen the Highlanders play in Dunedin. I hadn't seen the world-famous Zoo and its residents, the Scarfies, in action. Both lived up to their billing: the team as smiley, exciting, free-flowing, box-above-their-weight merchants; the fans as wild-eyed, untamed, glorious, party animals.

Dunedin's a small town and there's no escaping sport when it's on. This week it's been spoiled. On Tuesday, the Black Caps beat the Scots - with whom the town of course has a great affinity - at University Oval; and on Sunday, the Cricket World Cup was back as new boys Afghanistan took on Sri Lanka, whose stars Angelo Mathews and Mahela Jayawardene were in attendance at the Forsyth Barr as, wedged between the cricket, the local heroes, the Highlanders, played in their cauldron for the first time this season. The Highlanders took on their fiercest rivals and Super Rugby's hardest-swinging heavyweights fresh from a defeat at home to last season's wooden spooners. Oh, and it's freshers week in Dunedin, the Antipodes' most famous student town. Not a bad night to happen to be in town, eh?

Dunedin students flock to The Zoo at Forsyth Barr Stadium © Getty Images

The Highlanders' Waisake Naholo breaks a tackle, Highlanders v Crusaders, Super Rugby, Forsyth Barr Stadium, Dunedin, February 21, 2015
The Highlanders' Waisake Naholo breaks a tackle © Getty Images

And so it proved. The stadium's raw materials make the atmosphere unique. The roof may technically be no lower than at the Millennium in Cardiff or Docklands in Melbourne, but it always feels in play when the ball is slung high. Its smaller capacity means the stands certainly aren't as high as other roofed stadiums, but they are steep, meaning that you always feel close to the action. It also heightens the oft-discussed sense that, in essence, this is just a vast great greenhouse with stands on the side.

But all that technical guff about the aesthetics and the particulars is all a bit prosaic when describing the atmosphere at Forsyth Barr for the Southern Derby. That tale needs to revolve around people, and start some hours before kick-off. Dunedin's a compact town and compact towns are great on match day, whatever the sport, however big the ground, but especially when there's a bit of a walk to the ground; like there is at Murrayfield, for instance. Only a sporting event sees all the traffic, on two feet or four wheels, moving in the same direction with the same target. In Dunedin, that starts at the Octagon, where at half five on Saturday bars were full, if not overflowing. Publicans knew they'd be losing their trade for a few hours, with one offering a free shuttle service to anyone who bought a drink. Canny. Most of the folk - plenty in the local blue and gold, but also many crimson-clad Cantabrians - had had more than one drink, however, and decided to set off on foot.

On the roads on which they walked, people seemed to have come from all over Otago and Canterbury by the ute-load, and seemed to have enjoyed their journey. Passengers whooped and hollered out of windows, waving flags and pledging allegiance to their team; a kid saw a group of Crusaders fans by the station and ran over to express his distaste; students did what students do - they drank, they dressed up, they made a racket. The game hadn't started but this was good - no, glorious - clean fun.

When I eventually made it into the ground, about half the crowd had filed in. I looked immediately to my left at the sea of blue and gold gear and orange advertising that would shortly become The Zoo. The numbers were small but concentrated around a bloke DJing on a KFC stand at the front. As more filed in, the crowd just billowed out from him, until all but a few seats in the back corners weren't taken for kick off. This group of people produced a quite extraordinary level of noise, banging whatever there was to bang, singing their heads off and hearts out to whatever tune the DJ dropped and generally just having themselves a whale of a time. As the Highlanders team was announced, noise reached fever pitch, all the players receiving the same, belting cheer (perhaps the one reserved for Malakai Fekitoa was very slightly louder) and, naturally, the Crusaders were booed. Likewise, when Fekitoa or the Smiths - Aaron or Ben - got the ball, the volume rose; when Israel Dagg and Richie McCaw knocked on, the stand went spare.

Ryan Crotty on the charge during the Southern Derby © Getty Images

The game was end-to-end, compelling viewing, but I've utmost respect for the journalists required to file on-the-whistle copy, because events in The Zoo were far more entertaining; I couldn't take my eyes off it. The DJ was absolutely crucial, as he manned the Scarfies' - many of whom donned Highlanders' overalls, which they probably call onesies - student disco. He didn't watch the game, facing his fans and dropping tunes as and when he pleased. Pitbull and Ke$ha's Timber got them going, while they'd be treated to old skool classics (old school for an 18-year-old fresher, at least) later, in the shape of Bon Jovi, Lynyrd Skynyrd and S Club 7. Screw chanting, let's get down to the disco anthems.

Indeed, our friend on the decks may actually have stumbled across a rather excellent ailment to one of the game's great modern blights: crowd booing at tee-time. From Eden Park to Edinburgh, we see crowds booing visiting kickers these days. Not here, as he had no idea when Colin Slade was lining up a shot at goal and just stuck on Robbie Williams' Rock DJ or Smash Mouth's I'm a Believer to keep his punters happy. In terms of a distraction, that's got to be far more irritating than a few boo-boys. Those feral, wonderful Scarfies loved his work, whether it was intentional or not. And so did I. It's hard to know which bit they enjoyed more; the scuffle after 10 minutes, Fekitoa's second-half score (even 100m away, the decibel reader on my dodgy iPhone app became extremely confused), or that walk back into town for freshers week to continue, as opportunists whipped out barbies to sell snags and the stumble was a little less straight than on the way in. A night at the Southern Derby; what a party that was.

© ESPN Sports Media Ltd

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