Chris Benz and Dave Shireley will be filing dispatches from the Rugby World Cup in New Zealand, in the odd moments that they are sober. For a rugby glossary and position guide, click here.
AUCKLAND, New Zealand—Do not attend the Rugby World Cup opening ceremonies after a sleepless night with nothing in your stomach but breakfast. Rugby requires endurance, and so does watching rugby, if endurance of a different sort. But I was stranded in downtown Auckland among a throng of painted, flag-waving drunks, who filled blocks in every direction. Even if I could afford dinner, I would have lacked the strength to cram myself into an open fish and chips shop.
This story is a few days old, but it's worth telling anyway, because its mix of booze and pretty girls and far too many people watching far too big a spectacle in far too small a place sums up the World Cup experience pretty well. We'll begin on the train ride from our crash pad in Counties Manukau to downtown Auckland, which started with a sense of communal anticipation. The rails slipped over pastures and past brick buildings. Stop by stop our car filled, mostly with kids and upbeat parents. After an hour, the calm parents were faking it. An expected 95,000 foreign fans hit hard on a country of 4 million, and harder still when most Kiwi families haul their kids to a once in lifetime event. Imagine an entire country out to visit one Santa Claus.
Before we were even in Auckland proper, the train was so full it pulled into stations without opening doors. A ticket taker in an orange vest swam through the crowd, helplessly trying to identify passengers he hadn't charged.
The fans strained Auckland's train system beyond anyone's anticipation, especially as the government had tried to cut down on traffic by stressing public transit. The New Zealanders had listened so diligently that later reports described unusually light highway traffic. Our train spent nearly an hour motionless because, according to authorities, a commuter had hit the emergency stop to open the doors, then bolted into her station. We waited 45 minutes or more. The train didn't have a lot of air, and 10-year-olds bragging about their farts didn't freshen it.
By the time we unloaded in Auckland, Kate, my gracious, powerfully anti-social hostess, was trying to collapse her frustration in on herself in a black hole of funk, rather than let it explode outward in what would have truly been a formidable display of intolerance. We walked under wide-spaced buildings behind a dawdling, joking flock of teenagers. "If you want to walk somewhere, walk there," she grumbled. Kate gets shit done. Nonetheless, her cynicism melted a little at the youngsters. "They all know it's a once-in-a-lifetime experience," she said.
New Zealand rock band Split Endz was playing at Queen's Wharf. I was never really sure where the stage was in relation to us, because screens and speakers hung from various alleyways, and every street was equally crowded. To my surprise, fans dressed to support all the teams, not just the opening match's opponents, New Zealand and Tonga. I asked a man in an England kit why he was wearing it, and he said he moved to Auckland from England eight years ago, but he still supported England. "Once it's in your blood, mate, what can you do?" Girls wore dresses made of All Blacks flags. An SUV flying Tongan flags slowly parted the crowd. A little girl sat on her father's shoulders. She wore black fern face paint. (The All Blacks are the New Zealand national rugby team—their jersey has always been solid black, rather than hooped. The fern is the symbol of the nation of New Zealand. A note: rugby face paint tends towards a subtle flag on the cheek, not American-football style facial recoloration.)
I left Kate and waded into the crowd after a black couple wearing South African flags and tooting vuvuzelas, which is a big deal because of rugby's role in South Africa's fraught racial history. Especially if they flew here.
At least half the crowd appeared to be teenagers or college students, looking exuberant and young and beautiful. A vast number of fans wore Tongan red—five players on the Tongan team used to play for the Auckland Blues rugby team, and many Tongans and Samoans live in Auckland. A huge dude with his face painted like the Tongan flag told me that on any other day he'd be "an epic All Blacks supporter." His name was Henry, and he was incredibly cool. He said, "It's only our third time playing the All Blacks. All the islanders are gearing up for this." Henry was actually Samoan.
Dusk spread and Crowded House (also from New Zealand) finished their set. Some Welshmen explained that if the All Blacks lost the World Cup at home, the nation of New Zealand would collectively fall into a major depression. "If the All Blacks lose, it will be a travesty." This is generally accepted to be true, although New Zealanders have been actively steeling themselves for disappointment this year. New Zealand is the spiritual home of rugby, and for years the All Blacks have been the most dominant rugby team. They just keep losing in the World Cup semis, usually to France, who have a normal rugby team until they play the All Blacks.
The Welshman, Gareth, said New Zealand's massive celebration was unlike anything else he'd ever seen, not even when Wales co-hosted the 2007 World Cup. "It wasn't as big a deal," he said. "You can see they've been waiting for this for so long. There are so many people here. It's absolutely superb." His friend, Gareth, compared it to Times Square on New Years Eve. All Welshmen are named Gareth. Perhaps this is after Gareth Edwards, the greatest scrum-half of all time, who basically beat England all by himself in the 1970s. The Welsh coal mining regions famously produced creative rugby geniuses ("a factory of outside-halves") and in the 1970s they were unstoppable. Wales vs. Samoa will be one of the best matches of the tournament.
"We're scared of Samoa," said another Gareth. Then he pointed to some Auckland teenagers. "They've got beers, and they're only about 10. What have we done wrong?"
The Welshmen, like most non-Kiwis I met, were planning to travel New Zealand by campervan, drink, then return to their rent-a-dents to sleep. "The campervan dealer took one look at us and said, 'You're going to need a tent, too, mate,'" said Gareth. New Zealand campervans are essentially normal vans, but with a bed.
The screens lit up to show footage of the opening ceremony. Drunks began climbing to the roof of the ferry building. I'm short, the screen was small, and the speakers were weak. In between the cheering and the moving heads, I got only an impression of the ceremony. Here it is, from my notes:
A child wanders alone onto the field at Eden Park. He worships a glowing rugby ball. Then, Jonah Lomu arrives and everybody screams, because Jonah Lomu is Tongan and was also a legend for the All Blacks. A dance troupe in rugby uniforms sways around the kid. They want to steal the magic rugby ball. The child defeats the dance troupe, and a canary woman starts singing from the Webb-Ellis Trophy, which is a giant cage. A crowd of geriatric cruise ship passengers arrive onfield to do a line dance, except the birdsong turns into a pop song, then a Celine Dion power ballad. The canary is not Celine Dion, but would be if this were Canada. The child dances with a woman who is either a fairy or a very sympathetic music teacher. The prime minister appears. He gives a speech about the importance of hospitality.
A fortysomething Frenchman marches out of the jungle of a crowd, jostling people left and right. I can tell he's French because of his shirt and because of his accent when he looks me in the eye and yells, "There are dangerous things that way! Don't go there!" This is unfortunate, because if I could move to where he came from, I might be able to hear the speakers. Drunk folks flow out from his wake like pus from a picked scab.
I should also mention that around this point I had befriended a gregarious Tongan woman named Christina, and she insisted on giving me a Big Gulp-sized cup of a clear, unidentifiable alcohol. Her friends were all excited to meet me and we told Alaska jokes and I began yelling, "Go Ikale Tahi!" (Go Sea Eagles!). Fireworks went off—holy smokes, how long until the kickoff?—and the crowd sucked out to the intersection, which was the only place from which to actually view the fireworks. You could tell who was here for the ceremony and who was here to watch rugby. I stayed put, content with flashes reflecting in windows. Somewhere in there, an acrobat rappelled down the corner of a building and swung around it, and a group of drunks on a rooftop bar overlooking the street vanished, replaced by some sort of choir.
Eventually the teams appeared on the field, and both teams did the haka. It was probably two hours of ceremony, and I just wanted to see Tonga get walloped by the All Blacks. Christina had convinced me to root for Tonga, it's just that the walloping was inevitable.
I wandered further afield before the half and noticed a crew of attractive Irish girls. There had been groups of attractive Irish girls everywhere, but this one was hanging out with a guy I met at LAX, Oirish Steve. I hugged him hello and immediately began hitting on his friend.
Let's call her Molly. She had quit her stable job in the middle of a recession to travel the world. You can say nothing sexier to a man with no address.
We told jokes at full speed, discussing variously Fijian kava (everyone needs alcohol), campervans (a complete wreck), and the likelihood of the USA beating Ireland in the Pool C opener (not very likely). Turns out we're traveling roughly the same route through New Zealand.
The girls herded us into group photos. One of them who was not Molly tugged me close, and I felt a hand on my ass. Dammit, wrong girl. They were going to retreat to a bar, but I had to pee.
I excused myself and weaved through the throng to the waterfront. A phalanx of police pointed to the nearest toilet, two excruciatingly packed blocks away. Apparently, the Auckland city government anticipated private business would take care of our toilet needs. I slipped a barricade and climbed under the boardwalk, where the sea lapped the dock.
When I returned, the girls were gone. None of them had New Zealand phones.
The trains home were canceled. They told us that drunks were lying on the tracks, and I ended up falling asleep on my feet in a motor coach's middle row, getting dropped off at 3:30 a.m. at a dark train station and somehow not fighting some kid who was looking for a fight. The next morning I looked through my photos. The hand on my ass had been Molly's.
So the reason not to attend a rugby match on no sleep and little food is not because the opening ceremonies confuse you, or the Tongan booze hits you too hard, or even because you lose the thread of a conversation when talking to beautiful Irish girls. It's because you'll be too frail and stupid to count the hands and figure which one is connected to whom. And too stupid to ask, "Which bar?"
Auckland, I'd blame you and your toilets, but this was clearly my fault.
Chris Benz is a Deadspin rugby correspondent. He has played rugby for several American clubs and briefly in Calcutta, where he fled the pitch in triple-overtime of the final due to a serious case of food poisoning. His team lost by a drop goal. He doesn't really have a home, but he grew up in Alaska.