“Do I honestly look as though I could knock back eight cans of Heineken during a match?”
“No, but I could no problem” said the Kiwi girl at the beer stand in Eden Park’s new South Stand. Come to think of it she would also have done a better job at tight head for the Wallabies than Ben Alexander did later that evening.
You knew it was going to be a mad night in Auckland when the Northern Irishman sitting behind me roared “go on ROG do it for God and Ulster” before Ronan O’Gara nailed the penalty that put Ireland up 15-6 against the Wallabies. O’Gara, a proud Munster man to his bones would probably have done anything for Ulster in the circumstances.
There have been a lot of “I was there” moments in Irish rugby over the past decade, Brian O’Driscoll’s hat-trick in Paris, the Munster and Leinster Heineken Cup triumphs, along with the Grand Slam in Cardiff in 2009, but last Saturday in Auckland definitely ranked up there with Leinster knocking Munster of their perch in the Heineken Cup semi-final at Croke Park in April 2009.
There was a very large and loud Irish contingent in the stands. I was amazed at the numbers of Irish in Heathrow’s terminal three on Wednesday evening, catching flights out via Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, Bangkok, and Hong Kong. Flights into Auckland from Sydney and Melbourne were also jammed with ex-pats and back-packers.
The Kiwis wore Irish jerseys, painted their faces green, and did something no Irish rugby fan ever would….they booed and hissed every time Quade Cooper got the ball or the Wallabies kicked for goal. How they howled when Cian Healy smashed him late in the second half.
“At long last, the Wallabies should experience what it’s like to win at Eden Park. After all, it has been an exasperating 25 years since an Australian team left that venue amid cheers rather than tears” mused Greg Growden that morning in the Sydney Morning Herald. Well at least he said “should” but I’m sorry that Greg has had an “exasperating” 25 years. Living in Sydney and writing about rugby can’t be that bad.
Australians really didn’t think that they could lose the game. I listened to them guffaw every time Ireland didn’t live up to the lofty standards of Wallaby rugby, which has been honed on the bone dry surfaces of Sydney and Brisbane and not the damp and sodden pitches of Limerick, Cork, or Dublin.
“What kind of culture is that?” bleated one fan when Johnny Sexton kicked the ball when there was nothing on. “Ahem” I hacked as I tapped him on the shoulder. “Culture? Try James Joyce, WB Yeats, Samuel Beckett, Oscar Wilde, John Banville, Van Morrisson.” I was wasting my time, he hadn’t heard of any of them and told me to piss off.
As the contest wore on and it became more apparent that they would lose they got a lot quieter. The guy from Cairns on my left who had previously declared “we’re a friendly bunch” buggered off with five minutes to go, like the defeated Tipperary farmer with cow shite dried into his Sunday best on All Ireland final day, without saying goodbye. The majority of Wallaby fans were magnanimous including Rex from Caloundra with the David Boon/Lemmy handlebar mustache. He stood around afterwards drinking in the atmosphere as though Australia had won and laughed at the sight of Donncha O’Callaghan pulling his customary silly gurn as he was led back down the tunnel towards the changing rooms/asylum.
The following day the Australian press put it down to the Wallabies being utter tripe as opposed to the “limited” Ireland being any good. Growden outdid himself with a rant which opened with this classic:
“It doesn’t get any more embarrassing than this for Australian rugby. The Wallabies were yet again shown to be second-rate by one of the also-rans of world rugby.”
Well the bulk of the Irish side is made up of players who have won three of the last four Heineken Cups as well as a Grand Slam two years ago . A number of young players have emerged in the last two to three years who will possibly back bone a British and Irish Lions side that are due to visit Australia in two years time. Calling them also-rans when they have just handed you your arse on a plate is mean spirited in the extreme. But how could it have been any more embarrassing than losing to Scotland? Surely that was the worst of the lot.
It was a night that will live long in the memory of all the Irish that attended but also the Kiwis, many of whom reported never having witnessed a more passionate or noisy crowd at Eden Park.