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Simon Hick's View from the Frontline: the greening of New Zealand

The Aviva crowds, with the odd exception, have had an ‘entertain me’ feel to them. This group in New Zealand, though, come to do the entertaining.

An Irish fan is tackled by a steward during the game against Russia.
An Irish fan is tackled by a steward during the game against Russia.
Image: INPHO/Donall Farmer

ROTORUA, POPULATION 54,000, has a stadium that holds 26,000. Much like the Gaelic Grounds in Limerick, it’s never full.

It was shaping up to be the dud venue of RWC 2011, a half-full Samoa-Namibia game looked meek and lonely compared to the extravaganzas of Auckland and Wellington.

What would happen for Ireland v Russia, the locals fretted. The result was a foregone conclusion and it’s a long way from Dunedin, Ireland’s next venue. Well, it sold out  two weeks in advance, and the place went off like a rocket.

This group of Irish fans, travelling from every country imaginable, and on every craft imaginable, are a different breed. They’re creating a scene that’s never really existed at Irish sporting events before, a mix of Maracana, Mardi Gras and apres-ski.

They’re younger, on average, than what you’d find in Lansdowne or Croke Park or Semple Stadium, a little more tipsy, and all of them are wearing or carrying something green. They’re also predominantly the ones who jumped out of the moving car when Ireland careered off track in 2008. The worst has happened, and they’ve realised the worst isn’t all that bad.

The Aviva crowds, with the odd exception, have had an ‘entertain me’ feel to  them. This group in New Zealand, though, come to do the entertaining. Maybe you need to leave a country to really love it, or maybe sleeping beside three of your mates from Letterkenny in a converted Hiace for six weeks makes you a better supporter, but whatever the emerald alchemy is, it’s working.

Close quarters

Several of the players have commented that the support in the week leading up to game day is as important as the day itself. The small towns mean regular meetings with the squad, and at every turn they’re reminded of the effort their followers have gone to. The fans, in turn, have noted how open and accessible the players are. Six Nations weekends are never like this.

Rotorua too, has never seen the likes of it, it will be like the second of January today for the pub and hotel owners as the wagons head south. Only New Zealand have greater numbers trailing them across the two islands, and even that’s more of a quick hit-and-run on game-day.

The connection was established before the USA game, the players flattered by the attention and annoyed with themselves for not putting on more of a show in New Plymouth.

The victories since have cemented the relationship though.

The two are looking each other in the eye now, holding their gaze, walking hand in hand on this World Cup path, nervous and excited and naive. It’s young love, sure, but it might be for keeps.

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