Dispatches From the Front: Wellington International Match Day.

This is part 5 of a 5-part series. See also: part 1, part 2, part 3, and part 4.

For those of you have been following the trip vicariously through these stories, I apologize for the gap in reports. Using a tablet to surf the net is great, but when your fingers are fat and reflexes slowed by days of touring, a journalistic tool a tablet is not.

In addition, I had neglected to mention one of the special events our tour guide lined up for us in New Plymouth that wasn’t part of the tour. Just hours after their soul stirring victory, three members of the USA Eagles visited us in our hotel for a Q&A session, as well as time for some autographs and pictures.

Tim Usasz (scrumhalf), Mike McDonald (prop) and Nic Johnson (eightman) sat front and center under our media blitz and patiently answered our questions involving the match vs Russia, how and when they began playing rugby, the state of the professional game and how it felt to have a rabid fan base following them (amongst others).

The wide range in playing experience from youth and high school to college, really mirrors the stage of our game. The USA may be considered a minnow by the standards of the All Blacks or England, but with the likes of Mike and Nic being considered fully ‘home grown’ the future couldn’t be any brighter. The one area we are missing is a truly professional game, which would allow our best and brightest to further sharpen their game at home, without having to go overseas.

We boarded our buses later on for the trip down to Wellington, not only the capital of New Zealand, but one of the most beautiful cities in the world. The architecture and setting on the ocean are primary features, but the wide open streets, abundance of cafes and shops, and the friendly people enhance the natural beauty.

We only had a short time to tour before heading off to watch Fiji play South Africa. As followers of the team know, with the loss of beloved teammate Phillipe Leka early last year due to an on-field injury, much of the team has ‘adopted’ the rugby team of his home country of Fiji. So needless to say, we had an emotional attachment to the game.

In addition, the New Zealand government and NZ Rugby Board have strived to get the population to not only support the All Blacks, but to pick a second team to support as well. So every team, no matter how small their fan base, can count on a few thousand rabid and cheering fans for each game. It really is a touching and special note, and really well done. Each team has a town where they are based for as long as they remain in the tournament. In these towns, the locals usually take it a step further, hosting players in their homes, renaming street signs in that language, and really making their town a ‘home away from home’ for the international teams.

The Wellington Stadium, affectionately called “The Cake Tin” by the locals, is right in the heart of the downtown. The crowd was a rowdy mix of Fiji supporters and South African Bokkes. The Fijians started off with a rousing haka of their own, to which the Springboks gave only the requisite hard stare. That was about the only real show the Fijian team was able to muster however, as the Springboks gradually steamrolled them from all angles and aspects of the game.

The highlight of the evening was the Australia vs Ireland match, which was shown on big screens in every pub, and numerous big screens in open air locations throughout the city. There is a saying here that “My second favorite team is anyone playing Australia”, and it showed with the enthusiasm displayed as the Irish pulled ahead to stay.

The Irish front row put on a clinic on how to stuff 8 Australians into a pickle jar, and didn’t let up from the opening kickoff to the final whistle. As a veteran of many front row battles, on both ends of the stick, it appeared to me that the Aussies didn’t stand a chance, although they seemed to be given the benefit of the doubt in several dubious collapses.

Public enemy number one in NZ is the Australian flyhalf Quade Cooper, a flashy bloke who in fact hails from the hosting islands. He seems to embrace his role as a target, at least when it comes to the media attention. QC tried to make the most out of space and chances, but with the forward pressure by the Irish, neither was available on this night.

Despite the tight scoreline, the Irish thoroughly dominated the match, and claimed the biggest upset so far of the tournament. We finished off the evening touring the late night hangouts on Courtney Place.

Next up will be an article on the special day provided us by Johnsonville RFC.

Your in rugby,
Prince Jim

Jim Harings
Jim Harings
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