New Zealand gears up for showpiece event
December 29, 2008
Prime Minister of New Zealand John Key, Martin Snedden, CEO of Rugby New Zealand 2011 Ltd and Kit McConnell, IRB Rugby World Cup Tournament Director will be rolling out the welcome mat to the rest of the world. © Getty Images
As I begin work on this article, Rugby World Cup 2011 is 983 days , 22 hours , 13 minutes and 16 seconds away. New Zealand , to borrow the phraseology of another time and place, is on World Cup footing, the sights and sounds of planning and construction visible and audible.
The recent Test and 20-20 cricket series between New Zealand and the West Indies seem to have been played on building sites, the Napier and Eden Park, Auckland venues, in particular, undergoing major seating upgrades as preparations for the greatest sporting event ever to have hit these shores gather momentum.
The decision by the IRB to award the 2011 Rugby World Cup to New Zealand was greeted with ecstatic surprise down here and with a mixture of derision and contempt from many sections of the world's rugby press. Why not take the tournament to one of the game's frontiers, such as Japan or the United States, it was argued, and thereby extend the reach of a sport seeking a global audience? Why New Zealand again, physically isolated, with a tiny population and transport and accommodation infrastructure unlikely to attract and cater for the sort of audiences that could be guaranteed in some of the world's great metropolitan centres, Tokyo perhaps, or Chicago?
You can see the critics' point : in the age of global satellite TV coverage, internet saturation reporting and instant audience reaction, how can you make a planet-wide event in the homely surroundings of the Westpac Stadium in Wellington or Dunedin's Carisbrook, both likely to be lacking the sort of electricity recently generated at the Stade de France, Sydney's Olympic Stadium or Cardiff's Millennium?
The truthful answer is that you probably cannot, because that electricity is not generated by the venue but by the audiences. The sort of tribal passion pumped out at Twickenham, or Dublin's Croke Park or Johannesburg's Ellis Park is beyond the emotional reach of kiwi crowds. New Zealand rugby folk, Grant Fox in his newspaper columns or Murray Mexted in his television commentaries, regularly eulogise the passion within the New Zealand game, but it is a very different passion, a relentless, steely-gazed pursuit of rugby perfection which dismisses losers but remembers losses with cautionary zeal.
What Rugby World Cup in 2011 will offer, and this is probably beyond the reach of any other rugby playing nation on the planet, including Wales and South Africa, those countries most often cited as comparable rugby cultures, is a tournament and an experience built from the cultural and rugby grassroots.
At the end of October, Martin Snedden, former New Zealand Test cricketer and now CEO of Rugby New Zealand 2011 Ltd., announced that 18 different regions across New Zealand had lodged proposals to host pool matches and/or visiting teams during the tournament.
"We have been working closely with regions throughout New Zealand and, practically without exception, every part of the country has been exploring how they can be a part of Rugby World Cup 2011," explained Snedden.
"The response has been exceptional and demonstrates how much New Zealand regions want to be involved in this once in a lifetime opportunity. It provides the country with the perfect platform to deliver on our collective vision of a Stadium of Four Million."
Of the 18 regional proposals, 11 have applied to host pool matches, comprising 16 separate match venues, while seven regions have applied to host teams only. In addition to the 40 pool matches, this process also includes proposals to create team bases for the 20 teams either in the lead-up to the tournament or between matches. The regions which applied to host pool matches are Northland, Auckland, Hamilton, Bay of Plenty, Hawke's Bay, Taranaki, Manawatu, Wellington, Nelson Tasman Region, Christchurch and Otago/Southland.
"This has been a major undertaking for all concerned so we are extremely grateful for all the work that the participating regions, cities and towns have done to get the process to this stage," Snedden added. "Based on an initial look at the proposals, they are of exceptionally high quality and reflect the unity, passion and support of the participating regional groups." In the small Northland community where I live, 120 kilometres north of Auckland, a community with strong Scottish roots, planning for 2011 is already well advanced.
Led by groups representing the local rugby club and cultural organisations, visitors and/or team members will be hosted by the community and offered a full programme of social and cultural activities. Waitangi, the birthplace of New Zealand, is just an hour up the road, and there are proposals for all World Cup captains to gather there pre-tournament to experience the full range of Maori cultural protocols.
I guess this begins to sound a little like rugby from another era, when in the amateur days the whole cultural package was a part of the long tours which rugby followers of a particular vintage remember so fondly. Whether they are doing so deliberately, or because they really have no alternative, organisers of the 2011 World Cup may ultimately do the wider rugby community a huge favour. Japan or the United States could, no doubt, deliver a huge new audience but there would be no context for the rugby. In the years since 1995 professional rugby has become the pursuit of ever greater amounts of money. 2011 will obviously have to balance the books, and more, but it also promises all participants, whether players or supporters, a much richer experience.
Oh well. Only 983 days, 20 hours, 5 minutes and 28 seconds to go.