Embracing the island style

JON CARDINELLI writes that fanatical support for the Pacific island nations has sparked terrific excitement in the build up to the World Cup opener in Auckland.

When last did you hear of 7000 fans turning out to welcome a rugby team? Resplendent in red and white, a mass of Tonga supporters gave their team an emphatic welcome at the Auckland Airport. There was an inevitable traffic jam and also reports of crazed fans racing out in front of the team bus, but all in all Tonga were handed a tremendous confidence boost ahead of their match against the All Blacks.

Ryan Vrede and I arrived in Auckland on Monday, and have been taken by the amount of support for the Pacific nations. There have been a fair few people wandering down Queen Street draped in a Samoa flag, but I’ve lost count of the Tongans wearing their national colours proudly. They may not have a hope in hell of beating the All Blacks, and yet their patent spirit and pride may convince a few of the laymen out there that they indeed stand a chance.

I’ve seen hundreds of red and white balloons, as well as scores of national flags displayed in front of houses on the North Shore and in the suburbs surrounding the airport. One Auckland-based die-hard even took it upon himself to spray-paint his car with a Tonga-flag motif, and was last seen speeding up and down the Waterfront. Why you ask? Just to let everybody know who he’ll be supporting come Friday.

On Wednesday, Vrede and I took a stroll down to The Cloud at Queens Wharf, and were treated to a show at the Pacific islands expo. Highlights included the sampling of various Pacific islands’ food and drink (which ranged from Samoan health remedies to Tongan beer – ‘No crap added’ as the branded T-shirts confirm) to live music and hip-wrenching dancing routines that put Shakira to shame.

While there is a lot of support for the smaller islands, Auckland is still most definitely behind the All Blacks. Just about every business has an All Blacks or New Zealand flag in their window, and apart from our friend with the Tonga-flag motif, the majority of local cars are flying the iconic black flag. ‘The World’s Come Here To Play’ says the slogan pasted to every free inch of wall space, and having spent several days here and witnessed the diverse hordes first-hand, it’s hard to disagree. The world’s here to play, but at the same time it’s very clear that this is Kiwi turf.

Vrede and I are in town for the tournament opener, which should be a spectacular event if not a competitive rugby contest, before we head south for the Springboks’ first fixture in Wellington. Getting to the capital will require no small amount of effort, as we’ll be winding our way down the north island in a campervan that’s not quite big enough to be a mobile home and not quite small enough to negotiate New Zealand’s difficult roads at great speed.

But other than the fact that we’re yet to taste a quality local beer (Steinlager was so disappointing, cuz), there are no real complaints from our side. We’re just one day away from the biggest rugby spectacle on the planet, and if wasn’t already obvious, Auckland is definitely the place to be.