Hundreds of handwritten signs were hoisted high and proud around Victoria Park at lunchtime to praise, thank, and welcome home the world’s best men’s rugby team, Richie & The Boys.
Most were direct and to the point. “Go the All Blacks,” “Well done boys,” “I LOVE THE ALL BLACKS.” Others seemed a little needy – “Don’t.” “LEAVE.” “US.” RICHIE,” pleaded a group of boys in a message so heartfelt it spanned four separate signs. Some were boldly romantic – “SBW be my 2nd husband.” One was taped to the handle of an umbrella and held aloft like a wizard’s staff.
Many were written by people who barely old enough to know how to write, but were inspired by the occasion and the free Air New Zealand paper and pen to have a crack anyway. A young girl on the grass in front of me went in so hard she filled up her whole sign with the word “ALL” and had to squeeze the “GO” and “BLACKS” in the corners. The influence of Justin Marshall’s commentary on our children’s vocabularies was plain to see in the sign which simply read “All Blacks WOW.” My favourite one said: “My dad watched you every morning.”
Like everything the All Blacks do, this was big news. Seemingly the entire TV3 newsroom was there. Two reporters who I had previously thought were the same person weaved through the crowd side-by-side like the twins from The Shining. Mike and Hilary and Hamish Mackay broadcast live from a scaffolding pedestal, around which people gathered and gazed in awe. They shouted out “Hilary!” and “Mike!” and “we love you!” One man just yelled “News! News!” until they looked at him and graciously smiled and waved and said thank you and posed for a photo.
A lady who was up for the Robbie Williams concert told Hilary: “we want them to come to Dunedin.” Hilary sympathetically assured her: “If I could do anything I would.” Later the same woman turned to a security guard during Kool & The Gang’s ‘Celebration’ and suggested the DJ “play some Robbie Williams next.” When Ladi6 took the stage she cheered enthusiastically and then admitted to her friend: “I don’t know who Ladi6 is.”
Anticipation was slowly building. MCs Laura McGoldrick and Scotty Stevenson came and went from the stage, offering tidbits of All Blacks gossip – “I heard they’ve left the hotel,” “they are definitely on their way.” People looked around anxiously. Finally, the murmur of the crowd seemed to die down for just a second, enough time for a boy’s voice to rang out: “Here they come!”
DJ 09 never played any Robbie Williams. He started his set with a strong run of classics – ‘Uptown Funk’, ‘Don’t Stop ‘til You Get Enough’, ‘Slice of Heaven’ – but once the All Blacks started their slow procession down the grass gauntlet which cut through Victoria Park he seemed to lose focus. It was a tough crowd to get a read on. He played Flo Rida ‘Good Feeling’ and Black Eyed Peas ‘I’ve Got a Feeling’ back-to-back. He played two Six60 songs and a remix of ‘Royals’. He played a Scribe instrumental and an extended instrumental mix of ‘Men in Black’, twice.
The numbers lining the All Blacks’ gauntlet went at least ten deep. They jostled for autographs and selfies, and The Boys – in jeans and sunglasses with their team polo shirts – obliged as many as they could. Even Steve Hansen leaned in and grimaced for a few.
Richie McCaw cradled the Webb Ellis trophy to his hip with the assurance of a second-time dad. The crowd gasped as at one point the lid fell off, but he popped it back on. At some stage somebody gave Steve Hansen a lei, and it sat crooked across his shoulders. As they neared the stage, a security guard approached Dan Carter for a hug and gave him a passionate kiss on the neck.
Eventually they made it safely to the stage. Haka from Auckland Boys, Auckland Girls and Mt Albert Grammar schools roared and hissed from the speaker stacks. It was a moment so powerful a woman in front of me captured it twice, one hand holding a selfie stick with a GoPro on the end and the other, an iPhone. Sol3 Mio performed the All Blacks’ official song ‘I See Fire’, most of it with their backs to the audience, singing directly to the team. “That was good singing, man,” said the lady next to me. She had come straight from the airport with her grandchildren, who were now falling asleep at her feet.
McCaw and Hansen said some heartfelt and gracious words of thanks – and for McCaw’s troubles he was offered “the freedom of the city” by Mayor Len Brown. “You still have to pay your rates if you have property here though!” he hooted obliviously.
Many of the men who were on stage will never play another test for the All Blacks. Ma’a Nonu was asked what he will miss most about being in the team. He thought for a second and replied “I guess just the support really.” Dan Carter reflected that “it’s going to be sad to think I’m no longer playing for the All Blacks.”
Kuratiwaka Ngarimu, the Ruatoria boy whose video of support for Nehe Milner-Skudder lit up social media in the week before the final, was flown up to meet his favourite player. Milner-Skudder greeted him with a hongi and accepted the cake Kuratiwaka had promised his mum would bake in the video. It was decorated with the hashtag “#MEANAGE.”
As the crowd began drifting towards the city, the Modern Maori Quartet began a Te Reo cover of ‘Royals.’ The All Blacks were already on the way back to their hotel. They will do the same thing again tomorrow and the next day in Christchurch and Wellington. Thousands of New Zealanders will turn out to celebrate and say thank you in a variety of small ways – by writing signs, by taking selfies, or maybe by baking cakes.