Scotty Stevenson pays tribute to the charm of the Heritage Hotel and the All Black team announcement.
So familiar now, those halls and doors; the flickering lights and the dated beige. So many times they have all walked the wooden steps down to the team room, or marched across the old floorboards that lead from the tower block to the lobby, and out into the scruffy private lane where Grunta waits with the team bus.
Not all of them, though. For Jordan Taufua, the corridors of the Heritage Hotel are yet to be fully explored. He’s one of the new ones – Shannon Frizzell and Te Toiroa Tahuriorangi the others – the freshly minted All Blacks for whom this Auckland landmark remains a novelty: a destination for the dreams of their yesterdays which today became reality.
The modern greats have all called this place home, from time to time, or for too long depending on the mood. This is where Dan Carter slept in desolation after his early exit from the Rugby World Cup in 2011. It’s where four years later he sat by the pool and pondered what it would mean to him to play in the next final. He did play in the final that year. And he won. This is where Piri Weepu kept calm and carried on and put his mattresses on the floor. This is where Keven Mealamu kicked everyone’s ass at Madden. This is where McCaw made notes and stared out the window. This is where Hore and Woodcock drank their six-packs on Thursday nights.
I think of how many nights and days the veterans have spent in this place, it’s northern rooms with harbour views, the buffet in the atrium, the city at the doorstep. The old stagers know all the shortcuts through busy kitchens and up and down the service lifts. They’ll show the new boys how to get around the place. No singlets at breakfast. Don’t be late to meetings.
They’ll live here two to a room, except the captain. A new captain was named today. Kieran Read will not spend his days here next month. Fortunately Sam Whitelock knows this place like the back of a lineout. He’ll sit about in the Grand Tea Room, which is now the Grand Team Room, its wooden floors covered in carpet the colour of tobacco phlegm.
They all grow tired of the place eventually, but they all love it at first. Jordan Taufua walked into the team announcement this morning with a smile that could light a candle in a blizzard. The night before, his Super Rugby coach, Scott Robertson, had announced to him and the Crusaders team that he had been selected for the All Blacks. He led the team song after that, and its victory chant echoed in the bowels of Eden Park.
To his Crusaders’ teammates, Taufua’s selection is long overdue. No one, they say, has worked harder for it than he has. In interviews, he thanked his parents. On Facebook he thanked everyone for their messages. In person he thanked us for the well wishes. So much gratitude in one human being.
The other players at the announcement had been here before, in the hotel and in front of the cameras, and in their All Blacks media duties polo shirts. They took it all in their stride, as Taufua will do when his feet touch the ground again. I wandered off, down the long corridor. There was Beauden Barrett, barefooted and wondering where the breakfast was. It was downstairs, where the team room used to be, opposite the conference suite, now packed with suitcases and kit, all initialled and official.
Logistics man Jimmy Iverson was arranging the piles and the rows, ticking off the checklists, making everything just so. Jordan Taufua thought he might need to go out and buy some fresh underwear – he had only packed for one night away and now he was here at the hotel and staying another couple. I wasn’t sure if the underwear was supplied or not. Everything else sure seemed to be.
A little later I sat and had coffee with Wyatt Crockett. Today was the first time since 2012 that he has not heard his name read out at an All Blacks announcement. He retired from the international game earlier this year. He had watched the announcement on television, in another hotel just down the road. I asked him if the day felt strange and he agreed that it did.
“But it’s a door that has finally closed,” he said after a brief moment, and with a smile. “The decision to retire felt hypothetical until today. Now it is done. Now it feels real.”
He will miss it a little. The shuffling from room to room, the meetings and the marches and the walks to breakfast and out to the waiting bus, where Grunta will be sitting in the driver’s seat. He will miss the echoes of team nights after wins and the long afternoons in rooms with rain on the windows and kick off still hours away. But he knows Jordan Taufua will love it all. Enough for all of them no longer on the guest list.
“How good?” He asks me, rhetorically.
“How bloody good for Jordy?”
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