Rugby

The end of a bright light in a dark year

It looks like the dream finale of the Super Rugby Aotearoa season before a sellout Eden Park crowd will be off-limits for fans this Sunday, leaving Jim Kayes unfulfilled.

It’s not the news a bunch of middle aged, success-starved Blues fans were hoping for.

“Hi Richard,” began the note from the Blues’ ticketing company to my mate who had organised for the five of us to go to the match against the Crusaders at Eden Park on Sunday.

“NZ Rugby is currently assessing the impact on Blues vs. Crusaders game following the Government announcement that Auckland will move to Covid-19 Level 3.”

It’s hardly a love letter, and things got worse in a media Zoom call with New Zealand Rugby’s Chris Lendrum who, in his polite and careful words, pretty much admitted the match at Eden Park won’t happen. At least not for those of us with tickets.

It will be played if the alert level falls to two, but that’s likely to be fanless. If the level stays at three or rises the game will be cancelled. But the other match, between the Chiefs and Highlanders in Dunedin, will be played at Level Two.

The Blues match can’t be moved to Christchurch because the Government has cancelled all travel into and out of Tamaki Ma-Covid, so we are knackered.

Lendrum, whose title of General Manager, Professional Rugby and Performance takes longer to type than it takes to undertake a covid test, also hedged his bets a tad when I asked if we would get a refund.

That’s up to the Blues, he said, after earlier admitting the match was hugely important in terms of their financial survival.

Liam Napier revealed in the Herald a few days ago that the Blues have sold 150,000 tickets to their Super Rugby Aoteroa home games and that income had staved off insolvency.

“It was scary heading into lockdown [the first one],” Blues CEO Andrew Hore told Napier, and that makes me feel slightly stink over worrying about whether I’d be getting my $40 back for Sunday’s ticket.

Though, as I typed that, I realised I haven’t actually paid Big Rich for the ticket, so... But then he is 6ft 10 so I guess I will cough up if the Blues don’t.

A dream end to a special season at a packed Eden Park might remain but a dream.  Photo: Michael Bradley

Anyway, that doesn’t really matter. What matters is that we won’t be able to see the Blues take on the Crusaders at a ground I first went to about 40 years ago and that is home to many happy memories.

Just not many in recent years.

I was there when Auckland were rampant through the late 1980s and early 1990s, and then the Blues dominated the first two years of Super Rugby.

They were wonderful times and we sat there, on the concrete terraces at the Cricket Ave end of the ground, never thinking those days were numbered.

There were a few lean years, and we won again in 2003 but then…nothing. Well, nothing but failure.

It’s not like the Curse of the Bambino when the Boston Red Sox spent 86 years in a winless World Series wilderness.

And the Blues' three titles are still two more than the Hurricanes and Highlanders, and one more than the Chiefs.

But for too long the Blues were the worst of the New Zealand teams with players like Jordan Taufua, Jack Goodhue, Braydon Ennor and Kieran Read happy to shift south from Auckland to the Crusaders. It was blasphemous but too sensible to really get upset about.

Things were different this year. We had a team. Skipper Patty T was leading from the front in the form of his life and big Ofa was smashing anything that moved.

The ‘sons of’ - Hoskins Sotutu and Caleb Clarke - were playing like their dads, Waisake and Eroni, used to do back in the day.

And the Ioane brothers, Rieko and Akira, had found form out of the lockdown with Rieko proving he was a centre and Akira finally living up to his teenage promise.

Oh, and we had two of the game's greatest players, Beauden Barrett and Dan Carter, even if DC’s dodgy calves have meant he’s only been the waterboy.

That's all why we were going to the game on Sunday. We’d gone to the Chiefs match a few weeks earlier when Shorty had worn his old Chiefs jersey with pride and we’d ripped him to bits in the pub afterwards.

He had promised to wear a Blues shirt on Sunday which would have given Dave, Smurf, Big Rich and I even more reason to have a crack.

And we were going to win. We were going to show those trophy-wrecking Crusaders that the Blues were back, baby.

And now…

Sure, there are more important things to worry about as this awful virus rears its head again.

It’s a pandemic and people are sick and dying, as economies struggle and people lose their jobs.

It’s awful, life-changing and there doesn’t seem to be a quick end in sight.

But rugby here had provided a welcome distraction from the doom and gloom.

It had, as Lendrum of the magnificent job title said, lifted the mood of the country.

Even those who don’t really follow sport had noticed Super Rugby Aotearoa was something special. They’d heard the rugby was bruising, brutal and brilliant, and the Blues were once again a decent team.

It’s why, as we left the Chiefs game, we had committed to being at the Crusaders match and were looking forward to being back at Eden Park alongside 42,995 other fans.

The Blues couldn’t have won the title, those Crusaders had won it already - their fourth in succession, the show offs, but we had a chance to beat them on our turf.

Now we will be lucky if we get to watch the match on a TV in Big Rich’s garage as we play pool and indulge in a bit of a Sunday session.

Maybe we won’t get to watch them at all. Lendrum wasn’t sure when we would find out but said NZR was “in lockstep with the government, we trust them and will follow their advice”.

And though it’s not really important in the greater scheme of things, it was going to be fun. A bit of Sunday sunshine in what’s been a dark year.

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