By mid-evening, an apocalyptic note had crept into the online advice. Keep away from the Auckland waterfront, the police were advising. There be chaos. In the build-up to the opening of the Rugby World Cup 2011, Party Central had become Party Pande-bloody-monium. In Auckland, it’s no picnic trying to get home by public transport after a Leonard Cohen concert, let alone during an open-invitation hooley for every rugby-mad reveller on the globe. Did the Prime Minister never see that 90s cautionary “party at Kelly Browne’s” insurance ad?
We’d seen the writing on the giant inflatable rugby ball, inching our way through crowds not for the claustrophobic and watching as thousands of elated Tongans made Dave Dobbyn warbling “Call me loyal” seem a pallid, Palagi sort of way to express cultural pride.
As we sheltered in the Ferry Building, which bulged dangerously with punters trying to get in, or out, it became clear that to linger any longer would be to find ourselves involved in a sporty Antipodean remake of Escape from New York. We joined other relieved absconders at the ferry bar to swap war stories.
Later, we shot up the nearest maunga for the fireworks – magnificent – and switched between Maori Television, Sky and TV1 for the rest. There was Close Up’s Mark Crysell, clutching his earpiece while elbowing rugby nuts out of shot as he waited to yell the live cross from Hell … I mean Party Central. Blair Norton reported from Dunedin. Cue mad scenes as punters gesticulated and fell over behind him. “Warrgh! Blurrgh! Woo-hoo!” they went. “I knew this was going to happen,” sighed Blair, with weary prescience. Perhaps they should have got him to organise transport in Auckland.
Given the short straw of reporting on the trains at the Kingsland train station – what trains? – Donna-Marie Lever sounded increasingly frantic: “People are getting here any which way they can!”
And so it went:
Simon Dallow: It’s totally chock-a-block! Totally chock-a-block!
Donna-Marie: There hasn’t been a train into this station since six o’clock!
Simon: The authorities are saying stay away! Ferry services to Auckland have been cancelled!
Donna Marie: They’re piling in here from every which direction!
Oh dear. The day before, John Key said the doubters would have to eat their words. There may be quite a bit of word-eating after that epic fail, but it won’t be from the doubters. Rugby World Cup Minister Murray McCully refused to chew on the word “sorry” when he appeared on TV3’s The Nation, despite even an All Black’s mum missing the opening ceremony.
Sean Plunket: Okay, are you going to apologise to them?
McCully: No, I’m not!
The Prime Minister is good at word-eating himself, as he demonstrated during his speech (“Laze and Genmin!”) at the ceremony. He hailed “the 20 best rugby teams in the world as they vie for the most coveted troty …” Troty? Even the French dude managed a few words in te reo, but there was not so much as a “kia ora” from the PM.
On the plus side, that chaotic night provided many unforgettable scenes, such as the arrival of the 20 waka. We’d seen some practising the night before, when the sight of them sliding through the water on a perfect evening stopped strollers in their tracks.
And the opening ceremony was stunning, even if it gave the watching world the impression that our ancestors came to Aotearoa first in waka, later in leotards. The young lad with Jonah Lomu was a little reminiscent of Nikki Webster airborne in beachwear at the opening ceremony of the Sydney Olympics in 2000, but well done.
As for the game, it was enlivened by Sonny Bill Williams’s timely wardrobe malfunction. Perhaps Dan Carter will compete with a shorts-shredding incident, so he can do a bit of product placement. Though at least one online commentator was unimpressed. “Must say he did look a bit silly when he couldn’t even put his own top on.”
Even the mayhem on the waterfront was heartening, in an alarming sort of way. That crazy night revealed Auckland as an increasingly lovely, deeply Polynesian city. Just as long as you don’t try to go anywhere. And it showed how much our nation of people from, as Donna-Marie might say, every which direction love to get together in largely good-natured multicultural celebration.
Pity about the trains. One wag suggested we now put in a bid for the Olympics. Never mind the medals tally, we’d be going for a personal best in leaving festively attired punters stranded in tin cans far, far from home, in a hopeless Major-Tom-to-Ground-Control situation. There can now be no doubt that, just as any civilised nation needs public service broadcasting, any First World city needs public transport. The RWC has done us a service by showing we really can’t afford not to sort it.