Last year Auckland won just three games in the National Provincial Championship, recording their worst finish in their history. Twelve months on, the famous blue and white hoops are on the cusp of winning the title. It has been a dramatic turnaround for a provincial side that has put respect at the top of its wishlist; now it wants the fans back, too.
“We have spoken every week about earning the respect of the Auckland rugby community,” Sir Graham Henry says on the phone to RugbyPass. “It has been central to what Alama Ieremia, Filo Tiatia and Tai Lavea have brought to this team.”
Sir Graham Henry knows a little bit about earning respect. The former Auckland, Blues and All Blacks coach likes winning, too. In fact, he once said – rather pointedly – during an interview that he hates losing. He hissed it. As if the very word ‘losing’ was such a bitter syllabic coupling that he could not bear to think of his facial muscles even contorting to form it.
He has mellowed as the years have passed. Winning the world cup in 2011 with the All Blacks helped. He jokes about that these days: “We smashed France 8-7, didn’t we?” Yes, he has mellowed but within him there still burns a winner’s furnace. When he coached Auckland, the side won four consecutive National Championships, between 1993 and 1996. He then coached the Blues to back-to-back titles in 1996 and 1997. He returned to the Blues as a technical adviser in 2003 and they won their third (and last) title.
And now here he is, back as… it’s hard to say really. Perhaps just being Sir Graham Henry is enough these days. He hovers in the changing sheds, takes it all in. He sees patterns with well-trained eyes, tries to understand why these young players are so relaxed all the time, offers a titbit here and a snippet there. He gives all the credit to the coaching team of Ieremia, Tiatia and Lavea – marvels at what they have done with this side. He is just there, and being there is what Auckland Rugby want from their fans tomorrow.
You see, they’ve opened the doors, extended the invite to all, given away every ticket. They have done what no other province would (or could) do and said, ‘come on down, it won’t cost you a bean to get inside!’ It is an extraordinary gesture, in an extraordinary time for the provincial game. And I sure as hell hope it works, because if it doesn’t then where to next for our domestic game.
This can’t have been an easy decision for Auckland rugby CEO Jarrod Bear, an Auckland Rugby man through and through who played for the College Rifles club and started his tenure with the union in last year’s season to forget. This is a ballsy call, although the punitive cost of hosting playoff matches certainly would have made it easier. It is tough enough to turn a buck out there without having to pay a premium for actually performing on the field. Hosting home finals comes with a hefty price tag and the provinces aren’t exactly flush. Bear and his commercial team have laid down a big advance here: get them in, then earn their loyalty.
It is a risky move in anyone’s books, and an unprecedented move, too. That it is being heavily backed by Eden Park – itself on a quest to maintain the loyalty of the Auckland sporting public – and by benefactor Peter Thompson – the Barfoot & Thompson Real Estate kingpin whose loyalty to events in Auckland is legendary – makes it all possible, but it will be for nought if the fans don’t feel it’s enough.
It should be enough, even without The Feelers being unboxed for added Kiwiana appeal, or the big screen showing the All Blacks test afterwards while fans sit on the famous turf and picnic their way through the evening. It should be enough because these teams are worth a price of admission, and much more than $0.00.
This is Canterbury against Auckland, inarguably this is the greatest hate match in all of provincial rugby. Yes, there’s still that old school niggle between Hawkes Bay and Wellington (but Hawkes Bay have a beef with everyone) and sure, Otago and Southland love a good old dust up, and yes, North Harbour and Auckland has a Rebels-Yankees feel about it, and okay, they once almost had to call off games between North Auckland (as it was) and Auckland in the 1960’s because, well, shit had got real, but this is CANTERBURY AGAINST AUCKLAND and that should still mean something to anyone who loves the game.
It matters not that the All Blacks are currently instagramming their way through Japan, you don’t need them (with respect) to feel like the sport is worthy. That’s largely the reason why so many of the provinces are struggling – the feeling that the national championship has become a D-league for Super Rugby; a starless constellation in the rugby cosmos. Not a chance. The Mitre 10 Cup is a futurist’s pleasure, a stargazer’s dream. You only see the faraway stars when the sun disappears. Just like you only notice TJ Faiane and Tumua Manu and Harry Plummer, and Robbie Abel and Salesi Rayasi when you are not agonising over the fitness of some more famous name.
Auckland, built upon a clear mandate to toughen the hell up, have certainly earned the respect of their rugby community, and now they face the team that took their record for consecutive titles (Canterbury won six straight between 2008 and 2013, Auckland twice won four on the trot) and has won nine of the last ten titles. Auckland hasn’t won since 2007, but they won the last game these two teams played. That was in Christchurch, too.
Now they are at Eden Park, where the fans used to switch ends at halftime so they could watch Auckland scoring all the tries, and where titles were once a fait accompli. All they need now is for the people to take them up on their offer of free entry, and for a couple of kids to remember the day they got to go to Eden Park, to watch the rekindling of one of the great rivalries in the game, where they decided that one day they want to be playing out there, just like Akira.
Maybe even Sir Ted would smile at that.
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