Doyle on Rugby: The thing about Eden Park

Garry Doyle discovers New Zealand’s strange relationship with their Auckland fortress.

Image: Billy Stickland/INPHO

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WELL, THAT WAS a bit of an anti-climax. And we’re not even talking about the game.

Rather it was the Eden Park experience; the famous old ground that hosted the 1987 and 2011 World Cup finals, the pitch where JPR Williams scored his great drop-goal on the ’71 Lions tour. Perhaps we expected too much but you just didn’t get the same experience there that you do in Twickenham, Paris, Murrayfield, Rome, or Cardiff. Especially Cardiff.

There was an interesting column about New Zealanders’ relationship with Eden Park in the national newspaper, The Herald, last week, how it is kind of tolerated rather than loved.

Now we know why.

One of the best parts of this job is getting to places like this, drinking in the atmosphere when you walk to stadiums on big-match day. You never need to ask for directions in Cardiff, Edinburgh, or even Paris or London, because you just follow the crowd. Everyone wears their colours, everyone mills around town from early in the day.

Here, it was different. An hour’s walk from town required Google Maps as a guide. We were 45 minutes along the route before we came across any fans wearing black shirts. That’s not the kind of thing we are used to.

We really are spoiled in the Northern Hemisphere with our winter festival. The Six Nations evokes childhood memories of curtains drawn, the fire lit and dear old Fred Cogley putting words to the pictures. As we grew older and discovered the dubious quality of looking young enough to secure a £3 schoolboy ticket for the South Terrace – but old enough to get served pints on the walk from town to Lansdowne Road, we quickly realised that there was more fun making your way to matches than there was in actually watching them.

You still get that sense when you are in Limerick, Belfast or Galway for a Champions Cup day. You can see it in the numbers bursting out of pubs; hear it in their voices. Here it was a case of wondering where everyone was hiding as we navigated our way up and down steep hills, passing these quaint, colourful, wooden houses that had a touch of Huckleberry Finn about them. One road – close to the stadium – sloped so severely that a kid’s scooter, momentarily left unattended, rolled 30 yards downhill before the little fella figured out what was happening.

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Looking back up, from the bottom of that hill, the rows of houses resembled steps of stairs ascending to a landing. And still we had not come across any All Blacks fans walking to the game. It was only when we turned the corner that we met some, Northland people, down for the day, chuffed with the parking spot they’d found.

They told their story, how the All Blacks team, is a reflection of who and what they are as a nation. The team reflects the best of them; they share people’s hopes as well as carry them. When one of them bleeds, everyone feels pain…

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Garry Doyle

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