He reviews theatre, video games, television, books… and now, rugby. Sam Brooks gives the Black Ferns’ opening match of the Rugby World Cup two thumbs up.
I can count the number of times I’ve been to Eden Park on one hand. The first was in intermediate school to see the Auckland Blues. Another time was with co-workers to see the Black Caps play against a team whose provenance I cannot remember. The third time was to see the Nelson Mandela exhibition a few years ago. The fourth time was this past weekend to see the opening day of the 2021 Rugby World Cup, specifically the match between the Black Ferns and Australia.
Before I went I joked that I had tickets to the Rita Ora gig. I’ll be honest and say that my reason for taking the tickets was absolutely the chance to see Britain’s most consistently fine pop star in the flesh, and then to watch some rugby on the side. It’s not that I don’t enjoy rugby, it’s just that I haven’t enjoyed rugby, and it seems like a time-consuming pursuit. Jokes on me, because I managed to miss the bulk of the Rita Ora gig (as in two songs out of three) thanks to my previous engagement, Hannah Gadsby’s 5pm gig, running a leisurely 90 minutes. It is not an exaggeration to say I’ve spent more time in my life watching Hannah Gadsby perform comedy than I have watching sport, but at least that evened out this weekend.
When me and my better informed plus-one arrived at Eden Park, we went to the wrong gate. Eden Park is big! It seemed even bigger from the inside somehow, as we struggled to find our seats (stopping once to watch the tremendous haka, and another to get some canned wine for our journey) among the thousands of people milling about. When we eventually sat down, after what I assume is the time honoured tradition of texting people who may or may not be at the event where they were, it was in exactly the place I didn’t want to be: a terrible spot for the Rita Ora gig.
Alas, that was to wait until halftime. The main event started. After watching bemusedly for a few minutes, I leaned over to ask what was going on. What I understood happened is that we dropped a lot in the first half of the first half. To be clear: the Black Ferns dropped the rugby ball. I dropped one of the cans of rose I bought. At this stage of the match, equally devastating.
It took me some time to get into the game! It’s hard to fully engage with something you don’t know the rules of, no matter how impressive or amazing the people playing it are. I know that the teams have to touch the ball at either end, then kick it through the posts, I know that they’re not allowed to tackle each other above the shoulders, and I know that if the ball goes out of the pitch, it’s not great!
Thankfully, I had someone next to me to patiently explain the stuff that I needed to know to understand what was going on. We were pretty close to the ground, but the ball spent most of that first half down the Australian end. When the Black Ferns started to get the ball down our end (the end it needed to be for the team to score points, I understand), I finally got it.
After the Black Ferns started scoring, the game was, to my theatre-addled brain, like watching an extremely well-rehearsed show get back on track after a few actors fluffed their lines and missed their cues. You’ve got your lead actors (Ruby Tui, Portia Woodman) drawing the bulk of the attention, getting ample support from the rest of their cast (the other Black Ferns). The entire team feeds off the energy of the crowd, and the crowd feeds right back off of them. Whenever someone scored a try, it was like the first act closer to a musical (“Defying Gravity”, “And I Am Telling You..”, some bad song from Grease). People lost their absolute minds. Musical fans and rugby fans… not so different after all.
By halftime, I was a converted rugby fan. After halftime? Well, I was a rugby fan and still a Rita Ora fan, after a reliably competent performance of her song with Liam Payne from Fifty Shades Freed, ‘For You’. (Real talk: Is Rita Ora the highest paid performer at the Rugby World Cup?)
For the second half, I really brought both parts of my gay male identity to the pitch. In true male fashion, I immediately told my plus-one they were wrong about the score, even though they had literally, not ten minutes before, explained how the score worked. And in true gay male fashion, I admired Ruby Tui’s red-and-black locks, not just for being stylish, but for also enabling me to recognise her despite being quite far away.
As Mad Chapman pointed out, there was a sheer energy in that arena that was hard to replicate. Nobody was there because they felt obligated to be there. Everybody was there to support the Black Ferns (or, I suppose, Australia), and they were absolutely stoked to be there. It was more than the generous energy of the attendees towards the team – there seemed to be a totally chill, non-aggressive vibe towards everybody. When I went to get beverages before the match, a woman kindly informed me that my nondescript black cloak (team colours!) was on inside out, jokingly reprimanded my plus one for not telling me this was the case, and then admired it once it was on the right way around. Somehow, I struggle to imagine that happening at a men’s rugby game.
Basically I just had a really good time. I imagine if the Black Ferns had lost I would’ve had a less fun time, but after seeing it, I can’t recommend being at a rugby game where the home team wins any higher. As I walked far enough away to get a taxi (I recommend boosting it to Dominion Road), I felt like I was walking on clouds. It was the same feeling I have after watching a great show, the happiness of being let in on something good, with a group of other people who feel the same way you are. The only difference is on Saturday it was 34,000 other people.