Impressions of New Zealand – 02 July 2022

Auckland – sport: rugby

Saturday, 2 July 2022 – we had tickets to Eden Park for the first game in the Steinlager Series between Ireland and New Zealand.

Nothing about the game looked easy for Ireland.

We arrived early, and walked around the outside of the stadium. At various points, four, large wooden carvings (tekoteko) stood guard, each glowering down from a three metre high plinth.

The first we met was Tāne Mahuta – ‘Lord of the Forest’.

On the far side of the stadium, two other sculptures, different from the tekoteko, recorded significant players in the All Blacks’ history.

Standing tall was Dave Gallaher. He was born in Ireland in 1873, and then moved with his family to New Zealand when he was four. In 1905 he captained ‘The Originals’, the first team to be known as the All Blacks. He was a major influence on the development of the team and how they played, and is now thought of as ‘The Father of All Black Rugby’. In 1917 he died from wounds inflicted at the Battle of Passchendaele.

It felt right to pause beside him, as Ireland prepared to take on the legendary team he had done so much to build.

Not far from where he stood was the flying figure of Michael Jones, who played in the first Rugby World Cup in 1987, and scored the first try for the All Blacks.

Inside the stadium, we were on the lower tiers, immediately behind a set of goalposts. Around us the 50,000 seats filled with black, sprinkled only occasionally with dots of green.

By the time it came to face the Haka, the Irish were lined up with their backs to us. Suspended above them, magnified many times, were the All Blacks, boiling down their challenge.

The game started fast and intense, but it didn’t silence the stadium. That hummed on, busy with social gatherings … until Ireland scored the first try. Suddenly attention snapped into focus.

But it didn’t help Ireland. New Zealand came storming back, and the chat returned to Eden Park, with beers collected and dispatched at about the same rate as the All Blacks trotted home their points.

After half-time the Irish threatened again, surging towards the line that lay only metres from us. Twice they scored, but it was not enough, their final 19 points, not quite half-way to the 42 they were chasing.

By the time we left the stadium it was dark and cold, and Ireland had lost.

How could they win the series?

It turned out that, against all the odds, Johnny Sexton and his team had the answer.

I was back in England when they won the series in Wellington, and I could not believe it. Ireland had become the first team since 1998, to beat the All Blacks in a series in New Zealand.

They had uprooted all doubt, and won.

“It’s not a long life so make it a good life”

I have no idea who Robert Arthur Patching was, but we passed this small commemorative plaque on the outside of a garden wall close to Eden Park.

Copyright Georgie Knaggs & The Phraser 2022

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