Opinion – The first rugby match I ever went to was when the British Lions toured New Zealand in 1993. It was the second test of the tour, in Wellington, and was an experience I wouldn’t forget – although it wasn’t exactly the life-affirming, fall-in-love-with-rugby moment it should’ve been.
That year, everyone seemed to be talking about something called the Employment Contracts Act and still coming to grips with $1 and $2 coins. Moustaches were still popular in an unironic way, and the height of fashion was a pair of Footlocker track pants.
I was born 12 years earlier. That winter, I was left with my grandmother while my parents went out and protested against the Springbok tour – however my dad managed to slip away just before kick-off at Athletic Park and watch the test with his pro tour family.
Now they were back, this time as somewhat uneasy patrons.
Mum was working at a production company that had got free tickets, so we walked up Adelaide Rd along with her workmates – none of whom could be described as typical rugby fans. I got the feeling Dad couldn’t care less about footy and was only there because Mum asked him to come keep an eye on me and my brother. Until that stage of my life I hadn’t played rugby and definitely hadn’t experienced true New Zealand drinking culture. Mum and Dad’s work parties that I got to tag along to were pretty civilized affairs with the sophisticated Wellington film/TV crowd.
That changed pretty quickly when we entered the western entrance of Athletic Park. Under the seemingly massive edifice of the old Millard Stand, it seemed like every adult male was urinating up against the fence. Over that corrugated iron divide was the 1993 version of corporate hospitality: cars with their boots open, full of beers for people to drink too much of while milling about on a loose gravel surface.
The Park was old and run down, even back then. The Millard’s green paint was steadily peeling off, and when the crowd roared loud enough, a coating of rust would be dislodged and fall on those below. The rest of the seating was simply wooden planks over concrete at the northern and southern ends, with the main grandstand offering little more protection from the volatile Wellington weather than a rickety tin roof.
It didn’t matter this time, though. It was a stunning day, without a breath of wind. The pitch was in perfect condition; it was the first time I’d ever seen it as we took our spot in the north-western stand.
The crowd seemed a bit apprehensive. The early 1990s were not a good era for the All Blacks and there was a bit of concern over the way this second test in the series would go. The Lions hadn’t exactly been amazing on the tour so far, but were desperately unlucky to lose the first test as a result of a debatable last-minute penalty.
Turns out the 40,000 of us in attendance had fair reason to feel that way, despite a good start by the All Blacks. Eroni Clarke latched on to a spilled bomb by Lions captain Gavin Hastings and scored a try, but after that it seemed like the All Blacks never touched the ball again. Which I wasn’t too unhappy about, because I’d been showered with beer after the try was awarded.
As well as stale remnants of Steinlager cans, the whole place had a dank smell wafting around. I was too young to know exactly what it was. Unlike in 1981, the police presence was basically non-existent, meaning that dope was being smoked freely all around us.
Not that it chilled anyone out very much, or at least placate the rampant homophobia. Every time Hastings would line up a shot at goal, a guy behind me would yell “Faaaaaaaa-ggotttttttt!” as loud as he could. Another man about my dad’s age shrieked that Lions halfback Dewi Morris was “a gay Welsh git”. He was scolded by his wife, who reminded him that Morris was in fact an Englishman.
Deep into the second half the sun had dipped behind the Millard Stand and had seemingly set on the All Blacks’ chances. Rory Underwood raced away to score the clincher, and from then on the crowd turned on both the All Blacks and the pockets of British supporters. A group of Union Jack-waving fans down from us at the northern end found themselves routinely swatting away flying beer cans. The homophobic chants weren’t just restricted to goal kicks or even the Lions anymore. I watched a bloke on top of the Millard Stand unzip his jeans and piss on the crowd below.
On the field Sean Fitzpatrick was having a shocker. The next test he played at Athletic Park he infamously almost got his ear bitten off, but he would’ve enjoyed that more because the All Blacks won that one.
The whole place had a heaving wave of aggression, rolling in like a wave that got closer every time the Lions inched closer toward victory. Muttered swear words became louder, fists were clenching and Mum started asking Dad if we should leave.
We ended up sticking around till the game ended, and kept our heads down for the long walk down Rintoul St. We’d just watched one of the all-time worst performances by an All Black team, ever – they’d lost 20-7, but should’ve lost by more because Clarke’s try turned out to be a botched call from the ref. That remains the last time the Lions had a test victory over the All Blacks.
I’d spent the afternoon taking a crash-course in New Zealand drinking culture and how upset people can get over a game of rugby. I didn’t give it much thought at the time – though, from the next year on, I was a regular at Athletic Park. I guess I figured it couldn’t get much worse and, being Wellington in 1994, there just wasn’t much else to do.
Tonight, the Lions are back in Wellington against the All Blacks. Athletic Park is long gone, replaced by the yellow-seated cathedral on the waterfront.
Have New Zealand fans grown up since then? I hope so. The All Blacks haven’t really given us anything to get mad about in a while. And the way this series is going, it’s doubtful that the hordes of Lions fans will have to worry about getting angrily pelted with beer cans like their 1993 predecessors did. Either way, there was an ugliness that is never appropriate.
Jamie Wall grew up in Wellington and enjoyed a stunningly mediocre rugby career in which the single highlight was a seat on the bench for his club’s premier side. He’s enjoyed far more success spouting his viewpoints on the game, and other topics, to anyone who’ll care to listen.
Published at Fri, 30 Jun 2017 23:13:46 +0000