We approached Auckland brimful of excitement and hope. Stirring power rock blared out of the stereo at full volume and we raucously sung along. Titles such as ‘Holding Out for a Hero’, ‘Don’t Stop Believing’ and ‘The Final Countdown’ seemed completely appropriate, ‘Simply the Best’ maybe a little more optimistic. As it turned out there was to be no hero, we stopped believing even before the halftime whistle and the only countdown was to the final termination of England’s woeful World Cup campaign. Simply the Worst.
On the road in to Auckland it seemed as though every vehicle had flags of one colour or another fluttering behind them. We had all been bouncing off the walls from the moment we woke up (not a mean feat in a camper van) and the emotions only went north from there.
Auckland was heaving with English and French as well as Irish and Welsh who appeared to have taken a wrong turn on the way to Wellington. The majority of the English whom we have come across all week from Wanaka to Wellington, Taupo to Auckland were confident of an English victory, firstly because the French were even more of a shambles than England and secondly because England always beat France in these sorts of games. Don’t they?
On arrival in the city we headed for a bar near the stadium and it seemed as though almost everybody else had had much the same idea. There were Irish and Welsh aplenty and what a treat their teams provided. When Ireland drew level shortly after half time it seemed as though the tide was moving inexorably in their direction, Wales had hardly had the ball for half an hour. But this Welsh side are fitter and mentally tougher than any of their recent predecessors and they dominated the last quarter when it mattered most. I still didn’t believe that I was going to have to spend the rest of the tournament supporting them though.
By half time at Eden Park I was having to come to terms with that prospect. England did everything they possibly could wrong in that first half, passive and ineffective in defence, directionless and uninspired in attack. And whether you interpreted their body language as showing that they just expected it to come right or that they were clueless, either way it was awful. It was hard to tell whether the French were even that good but that may have been due to the fact that our seats were closer to the moon than they were to the pitch.
The Kiwis have not been slow to criticise England on this tour (one even had the temerity to say ‘being expansive is not England’s thing. They would have been better to stick to the grind’ which given all the ‘boring England’ jibes suggests that the press down here will criticise England whatever they do). But the NZ fans gave credit where it was due after the game expressing their admiration for the attitudes of their English and Irish counterparts. Had it been the All Blacks who had lost, they said, they would have gone straight home for an extended period of mourning and recriminations. Many of them cancelled their trips to France for the semis and final in 2007 after they fell in the quarters. We assured them that we will be here for a while yet.
Within two hours of the end of matches you would have been hard-pressed to tell who had lost. Yes there was disappointment for many but there was also a city full of rugby supporters who had just seen two fantastic games and there was a party to be had.
We therefore can’t tell you too much about Sunday as much of it was spent asleep but we roused ourselves to head back to Eden Park, resolutely clad in England shirts which attracted a few comments. Although this time our seats were past the moon and on their way to the sun, we had the pleasure of sitting a few seats down from some Argentinian fans without whom the atmosphere would have been fairly flat. They were hilarious, singing, dancing and shouting throughout. I also don’t think they banked on any of us speaking a little Spanish as some of their songs were somewhat descriptive.
As it was they had plenty to cheer in the first half and their team put up a great fight. The All Blacks march on to face their conquerors from 1991 and 2003 (we might bring that up a few times this week), the Wallabies. And after their Six Nations showings who would have thought that Wales and France would be facing off in a semi? If it ever stops raining here they promise to be two fantastic occasions. And from a pure rugby point of view, much as it pains me to say it, the semis are almost certainly better off without England.
by Stuart Peel