Category Archives: Sport

Five Lions (and an almost King)

­1977

The first time I saw the Lions was in a smoky little bar at Mt. Cook. I didn’t know it, but it’s where I was conceived. Presumably not at the bar (though people do funny things at high altitude). This humorous anecdote popped out at my mother’s funeral a few years ago. It got a big laugh.

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Back in 1977 I was 10. Unaware. I didn’t really know who the Lions were, I was a soccer player. However I liked the name and loved the animal, which I got to cuddle at Barrington Mall that same year. It was a promotion for Orana Park where you could drive through the lion enclosure and watch as they ate chunks of meat on your car. Even though I was 10 I knew that the All Blacks were better than everyone else. It was a great source of pride in our tiny nation.

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I was staying at Mt. Cook with family, and family friends, in a little A-frame chalet with no TV. So Dad and me, ‘Uncle’ John and his son, Michael, left the girls in the chalet while we males sloped off to watch the game. It was exciting being a kid in a bar. Against the law! But it was a Test. A very rare Lions Test, as my English dad, Dennis, explained. The four great Home nations against our little one. The dads drank beer (Lion or DB; the only choices back then) while Michael and me ate chips and drank Coke, talked quietly and messed about, watching little rugby.

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1983

The next tour took place in the aftermath of the civil unrest of the1981 Springbok Tour. Dad had taken me to the 2nd Test at Lancaster Park. It was the last rugby game I ever went to (unless paid to go). Riot police jogging in formation. Barbed wire and pitch invasions. Broken glass. Baton charges. People baying for blood. A shared bag of Mackintosh’s toffees with Dad.

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Like a lot of New Zealanders, my opinion of rugby was poisoned by the national trauma of 1981. Families split, flour bombs and beatings, teachers ranting at you to support! Oppose! All took a toll. So I watched none of the 1983 Lions Tour. Rugby culture turned me off. It seemed braying, violent. Ignorant. Racist. I found a welcoming counter-culture in music. It was years before rugby rehabilitated itself in the eyes of many NZers by winning the inaugural World Cup in 1987 (everyone loves a winner).

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1993

With the next Lions tour I was immersed in theatre, acting in shows up and down the country. Touring, touring, performing, writing, learning about the great diversity that plays into our complex national identity. I watched no games. It wasn’t something anyone I knew did.

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Lions 1971

 

2005

By 2005 the world had ‘changed’. And so had rugby. It was now a professional package. It was hustled into professionalism when I started working in TV in 1995. I hid outside hotels with TV crews as the highly sensitive negotiations took place spending long hours talking shit, doing nothing, which is the nature of stake-outs.

At the 2005 game I was working on the ref communication system the officials now use to make decisions. The Lions Tour was the biggest rugby event the country had ever seen. Prince William was there listening to my mix. I was a little nervous.

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Half an hour before kick-off the police let us know that a bomb threat had been phoned in. Evacuation was being considered. 9/11 and the invasion of Iraqi still filled the news and the 2nd in line to the British throne was there. With 45,000 people in the stadium eagerly anticipating a rugby game full evacuation would disrupt the match, and international broadcasting. Satellite bookings and advertising windows would be sent into disarray. The police decided the threat was a hoax.

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2017

Tonight I’m working on the 2nd Lions Test in Wellington. Packs of Lions supporters have been roaming the streets all week. They seem a good-natured bunch. It’s hard to reflect in anticipation. While I am the same person who watched games in 1977 and 2005 (and ignored them in 1983 and 1993), I’ve viewed each one quite differently. The same eyes see both less and more.

 

 

I expect to stay wrapped–up high in the media box I work in, with heaters and Wi-Fi cranked, doing my job and keeping warm. Trying not to scoff my stash of liquorice allsorts too quickly.

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No one expects the Lions to win, not even them. The All Blacks are 5-1 favourites. All I can say for certain is that I (probably) won’t be watching the next tour in 2029. And the British (probably) will have a new king.

 

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At Sea

It’s a strange feeling pretending that you are invisible in the middle of a celebration, silently observing, placidly staring in the opposite direction.

My work life has been peppered with such moments. Some came back to me as I watched Team New Zealand win the America’s Cup on the telly this morning. The moments are fresh, but a lifetime ago.

Like a lot of my scruffy South Island peers I grew up writing off the America’s Cup as an elitist rich man’s game. It’s how I felt when Team NZ won the cup in San Diego in 1995 in my first months of working in TV up in Auckland. There was champagne to celebrate at the rugby game I was covering at Eden Park but I didn’t partake.

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Victory Parade 1995

 

The following week I worked on the parade down Queen St to welcome home the team and the cup. It all seemed a bit rah-rah to me. Not rock ‘n roll. Sharing a success you yourself hadn’t earned. But that’s sport.

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Mayor, PM and Peter Blake, Victory Parade 2000

 

When the defence took place in Auckland in 1999 I got a lot closer, spending every race day on the water chasing the yachts on a camera boat. There were many rough, lumpy days. A lot of hot, becalmed weeks. I read dozens of books and watched people amuse themselves with surfing dogs, dolphins and women in bikinis clambering aboard to say hello to the sailors.

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There were parties. Lots of parties. Prada. Team NZ. Louis Vuitton. Free Moet by the bucket.

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On lay days from racing I did field sound for the billionaire, Bill Koch (youngest of the infamous Koch brothers, shapers of American politics with deep, shady pockets). Bill was great. A big kid. He had won the America’s Cup with America3 and just wanted to interview all his friends for fun. He put on a bbq to thank everyone at the end of the event. It was a little bit Great Gatsby. White linen tables in front of a cliff-top mansion over-looking Rangitoto and the Hauraki Gulf. Silver service and a famous band playing on the rolling lawn. He sat with me to eat his dinner; a nice touch when so many rich and important people in need of schmoozing.

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I wish I had pictures of that night, but all the spectacle became so normal and every day, and, unlike now, everything didn’t need a digital record to exist.

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Victory Parade 2000

 

 

On the day Team NZ successfully defended the cup I was deployed on land, so to speak, bobbing about in the centre of the Viaduct on a pontoon awaiting the arrival of the winners and the presentation of the world’s oldest sporting trophy. I had rigged a radio mic on the podium earlier in the day and had a wired backup concealed within reach.

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As Russell Coutts lifted the Auld Mug with his young apprentice Dean Barker the confetti bombs exploded and thousands cheered. It was deafening. I looked behind me to the camera people held back by security, took a photo of the drunk and excited crowd, and wondered how invisible I could be.

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In shorts, bottom right, taking first photo in this post

 

 

3 Days in Samoa (part 2)

Dazed from the heat and humidity, and a 10 hour trip (plus afternoon rums in the Koru lounge in Auckland and Merlot with dinner), I ticked ‘sport’ on the immigration card. When questioned I said, business and sport. The rugby. The Blues and Reds. The referees? The giant official smiled from behind his tiny desk, amended the card, and handed me back my passport.

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We picked up our rental and drove to the resort by the airport ‘turn right, drive a few minutes… bump!… first right’. The directions were spot on. The gates to Aggie Grey’s Sheraton Resort were indeed right after a sudden bump.

In my room I fiddled with the telly, trying to decide if I needed food. But it was 10pm. I was exhausted and needed sleep.

I woke with my throat raw. Two flights. Sleeping with air-con. I walked out my patio to the white sands, took a dazed selfie to post on Facebook then joined my workmate for breakfast in the Apolima Fale. It was paradise eating with no walls and such beauty.

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Unlike everyone else working on the first Super Rugby game in Samoa we weren’t staying in town, so we had a one hour drive along the coast through village after village, ramshackle and pristine, proud of famous sons The village of David Tua, The village of Joseph Parker etc. I took passing photo after passing photo of open fales, little family stores and concrete swimming holes, all obliterated by bad light or my reflection.

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It was as I remembered from 1999, but much tidier. The rubbish scattered everywhere was now all absent. There are stands all along the road where rubbish is left so roaming dogs can’t get at it. Some are homemade. Some are engineered metal with labels saying ‘Australian Aid’.

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As we got closer to Apia bunting and flags lined the road. For rugby? Apia was jammed with people. Markets and stalls everywhere. We were funnelled away from our destination by closed roads and police. It was Independence Day. Samoa was celebrating throwing off its New Zealand overlord. NZ likes to think it was a benign ‘administrator’ who liberated Samoa from Germany at the start of WWI. But we didn’t let go and our officials mowed down peaceful marchers when they asked for freedom.

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There’s a wonderful Samoan song that remembers that atrocity. I learned it years ago when acting in a Samoan play. I sometimes sing it in the shower, delighting in the onomatopoeic sound of the Samoan word for machine gun. Fanata’avilli. Rat-a-tat-tat.

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It was hot and humid at the stadium. With four road cases to carry up the steep concrete steps to our booth at the top of the stand we took it slow, but it was hard going and my colleague soon began to feel faint and unwell. There was an air con unit but no remote control. It took forever to find someone who understood what we needed.

Heat and lack of water aside, it was an easy rig. I had to clamber onto a dodgy rusty, dusty, roof to rig aerials; a challenge with the grade-2 muscle tear I gave myself when I slipped on some rocks last weekend. But I was strapped from crotch to knee with purple tape so I was reasonably mobile. From the breezy, shaded cool of the roof I looked down to the two fullahs mowing the field. With t-shirts tied over their heads to shield them from the sun, they pushed two domestic lawn mowers across the entire pitch; slowly doing a job done by ride-on mowers in NZ. The average hourly rate is $1.50 over here.

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By 2pm we were done. I’ve never been so thirsty. Though it seemed wrong we couldn’t face the bustle and heat of Apia in celebration. We weren’t here to tourist, so headed to Frankie Hypermarket to pick up bottled water and drive back to the resort.

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After inhaling the plate of fruit left in my room I lay down on the bed to sleep. But as soon as I closed my eyes I felt bad. What a waste. I couldn’t hide in the air-con, no matter how tired I felt, so I put on my togs and headed to the pool. The water was stunning but I couldn’t swim with my torn thigh so I floated about in the empty pool (where was everyone?) before grabbing a sun longer on the beach to watch the ocean breaking on the distant reef.

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Four Australians turned up with drinks on the chairs beside me. The pool bar was unattended so I went up the main bar in my wet togs, trying not to feel self-conscious. It was happy hour. For the next 90 minutes! Alone in paradise I slowly made my way through the NZ$8 cocktails. Apolima Sunrise, Midori Splice and Blue Lagoon. Tequila, Midori, Vodka, Malibu, Blue Curacao and Orange Liqueur all went down easy as I skited on Facebook and listened to the Aussies mither about wedding fails.

So I put on a smile and put on the shitty dress. It’s what bridesmaids do. She wanted to arrive in a helicopter. A helicopter. I said, if you do that my hair will be all to shit. To shit. I literally bit my tongue for two weeks. So she dicked the best man to get back at him. Well you would, wouldn’t you? They’re still together. Toronto. Toronto for fuck’s sake.

The man drank beer in silence as his three bikinied companions competitively relived each horror. I guess he had never been to a bad wedding.

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3 Days in Samoa (part 1)

I’m flying to Samoa. The last time I went there it was last century, the end of the millennium. To a thirty-something New Zealander Samoa was the island of the day before. Since then the world has changed. More than once. It was 1999. We partied like it was and tried not to fret about Y2K and planes falling from the sky. Now I am 50 and Samoa has jumped the international dateline from yesterday to today. The past is here.

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I’m off for work rather than pleasure. Like the winter of 1999, it’s rugby. There are worse ways to earn a buck.

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Back then I was with a TV crew doing the first live broadcast of a big event from the islands. There was bit of pressure. We came over on the Saturday, did the game between Manu Samoa and USA on the Sunday, and then flew back to Auckland on the Monday. We stayed at Aggie Grey’s in Apia and drank cocktails in the pool. I got the Marlon Brando fale. As a one-time actor I imagined he had once been in the same room and busted out a Stanley Kowalski ‘Stella!” in tribute.

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18 years ago the plane was small. I watched ‘Shakespeare In Love’ and ‘My Favourite Martian”; the best of the few films on offer. This time the entertainment selection is huge, but not enough to drag me off my own devices… tablet, phone, journal.

Last time I took about 6 photos on the whole trip. This time I’d taken twice that before we left the runway.

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To be fair, in 1999 I also shot a 3 minute reel on my vintage 1970s Super 8mm camera. The travelogue was wholly edited in-camera, with titles and funny gags. I dug it out and watched it yesterday. The USA was led out by a man in combat gear jumping up and down, waving the stars and stripes. At the time I couldn’t work out if it was naïve or on point, and wondered what the Americans thought about being represented by this. Were they proud or dismayed? Or just indifferent? Manu Samoa had an oiled-up man carrying two flaming torches. It looked great in the tropical sun.

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That night, after a reception at the embassy, I had a beer on the town with some of the American players. They were just happy to be there; proud of their amateur status against a team full of professionals. ‘We’re builders, and teachers, that’s amazing, ain’t it?’

It is less than an hour until we land. Outside it is dark. No longer the island of the day before, Samoa is now an hour ahead of New Zealand. A balmy 28 degree evening awaits our arrival. It was 12 degrees when I left Wellington this morning. Cold. Windy. Autumn. It’s going to be an interesting few days.

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The Carnival Is

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For the last week I’ve had a very persistent earworm; The Carnival Is Over by The Seekers. It’s because I’m working on the Wellington Sevens and the only story/topic of conversation is who killed the event and how dead is it? I’ve asked strangers, colleagues and rugby enthusiasts all week if they’re going and they either laugh or scornfully say no!

The party is over and no one’s keen to go to something so uncool.

Who killed it? An editorial in the DomPost said ‘don’t blame the fun police’. (I like the idea of fun police… better than un-fun police).


I could give a well-reasoned answer to what’s behind the demise, but as I work on the event my lips are contractually sealed (across all media). But I’m a writer so I must find wiggle room to engage.

This is my 10th event. That’s a lot of being at the centre of 30,000 people in full carnival mode. Dressing up, undressing, cross-dressing (but only males), full mask, partial mask, getting hammered/tweaked, singing, dancing (only females) with work colleagues, friends, family and strangers. I’ve seen it’s at its peak. It was wonderful, and awful.

February 2008 (my first Sevens) was a different world. I was in an empty house in a new city with a pregnant partner I had known for less than a year and the Global Financial Crisis was about to smash into us.


Whatever happens this weekend, as an on-field comms tech I shall continue to get paid to turn off very fit, hot sweaty men (and the occasional woman). I’m an okay de-fluffer. It’s better than having to turn them on, I suppose, but isn’t that the point of Carnival?

The train is passing the stadium. The conductor has just said ‘bing-bong bing-bong!’ on the intercom and welcomed us into Wellington. Everyone is in good humour. Game day is on.

 

Confessions of a De-Fluffer       Ghosts of Sevens Past

2 Days in Christchurch (part 3)

No Escape

It was hard to prise myself out my funky room at BreakFree on Saturday morning. I was four floors up, isolated from any noise with a generous (for NZ) 500MG of data.

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I opened the blind and saw the sun rising in the east as a steady stream of fluro-jacketed re-construction workers walked into the CBD through the empty waste of Cashel Street. Apparently their request for parking privileges as they rebuild the city has been declined.

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After some quick stretches (often hard to achieve in a studio room) I went down to the gym to do 15 minutes on a bike. I have a torn meniscus at the moment (cartilage in the knee) and can’t run (or sleep or sit or stand without discomfort), so low impact is the only option. It was great to get the heart going and to stretch the tendon on the same leg that was operated on 3 years ago to correct Haglund’s deformity. The Achilles’ takes a long time to heel. A 7mm bone spur was shaved off and the tendon scraped clean. I haven’t been able to run properly since and when in bare feet have the disconcerting sensation of feeling the cup of the Achilles’ on my heel. It’s not painful. Tendons are just slow to re-align. If I press on the scar on my heel an electric shock fires to the other side. It’s because tendons are piezoelectric, like a crystal in a turntable stylus or the starter for a bbq. The cells all line up and fire as one.

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After a shower in the coolly opaque en-suite I took my bags to the lockers at the bus exchange ($2 a locker for 24hrs). It was warm and sunny (in the sun) but the cool Easterly meant many people were in jackets (especially the South African rugby fans in town for the game against the All Blacks). I regretted wearing shorts. But that’s spring in Christchurch. I headed to the Pop-Up ReStart shops by the Bridge of Remembrance to look for a pressie for my mate who’s just turned 50.

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I went straight to Hapa and found the perfect thing as soon as I walked in the door, a pretty-as solar-powered retro Kiwi caravan nightlight. Lumilight is a UK company that does Alpine chalet lights, and a (surprisingly random) selection of NZ ones (Wool Shed, Otago Hotel!? etc).

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Then it was off to C1. Being a sunny Saturday morning it was packed with a long queue at the counter. On a tight schedule I nearly went somewhere else but I love the place (and food) so much. A group of Merivale/Rangi girls behind me whined about the wait, fussed over their friends who weren’t saving their table right, gushed about things on their phones, and repeatedly pushed into me trying to make the line go faster.

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I didn’t really want a big breakfast but I still chose the Super Choice Bro. Because I had to travel the city. Backwards and forwards. And because of the name.

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As I sat outside scribbling in my journal, ready for a half hour wait, I watched groups of mums rush to grab tables and big-bellied rugby fans look at the café with confusion.

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My pretty-as macchiato appeared after 3 minutes. My killer kai took 7. I was amazed. So fast, so beautiful. Not a hulking pile of fried stodge. The matching oblongs of smoked bacon belly and hash brown were almost too stylish to eat. Almost.

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Then down to South City to the only florist that seems to be open in the CBD, stopping briefly to drool over a couple of bass guitars in the window of CJs music store (where I bought two basses in the ‘80s). I wanted flowers to take to my grandparents. I hadn’t been in a long time. It’s tricky when you don’t live in town any more. I used to go with my mother but it’s nearly five years since she went to ashes, too.

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Tempted by the garish multi-coloured chrysanthemums at the door I settled on simple daffodils (they’re up everywhere in Chch). The florist said she hates the chrysanthemums and laughed. They’re dyed in Japan and people love them but they’re impossible to make an arrangement with.

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I headed back up Colombo St with my three bunches on daffys to catch the bus out east. The driver said I didn’t need to buy him flowers, and laughed. And then three tourists got onto the otherwise empty bus and sat right in front of me making me even more self-conscious. It was the refs for the All Blacks vs Springboks test that night (I do comms for rugby in Wellington and had worked with them a couple of weeks ago). They were sightseeing, killing time before the game, but didn’t recognize me.

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Feeling amused, and slightly aggrieved that I couldn’t escape work, I listened to the Australian video ref school the French officials how to speak NZild English. It was funny and awkward but I didn’t want to surrender my anonymity (or explain the flowers). When they expressed amusement/bemusement at the 185 white chairs lined up on Manchester Street as a memorial for the victims of the 2011 earthquake I spoke up, becoming a tour guide for a block or two before saying gidday (and explaining the flowers).

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I’ve been going to the crem in Linwood since the early ‘70s after my grandmother died when I was 6. My grandfather, Sandy, finally joined his Flo’ in the mid ‘80s. Immigrants from Scotland, they escaped the post-WWI slump in the 1920s. With most of the large family they had in Christchurch now moved on themselves I expected their stone to be untended. But there were flowers. It made me happy. As I kneeled and cut the stems of enough flowers to jam into the plastic vase a small boy ran up to me. “Don’t run in here, Latham!” his grandmother called out behind him. “Do you have a granddad Russell, too?” he asked.

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It’s hard knowing how to remember the past. I try to always think well of it. After touching the stone 3 times, feeling the loss a little less each time, I took the remaining flowers to look for the memorial of close family friends I had yet to pay my respects to. They had loomed large in my life. Throughout my childhood and teens I had spent many holidays with Aunty Marie and Uncle John. Their metal vase had no flowers, and 13 holes. Exactly the number of flowers I had left.

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It was now noon. Time to bus back to town, retrieve my bags and head out to New Brighton to listen to music, drink and laugh, escape and remember the past.

 

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Game Day

 

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Today is grey and cold.

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Tonight the All Blacks are playing the Wallabies in Wellington.

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I’ve never bought a rugby shirt.

Or a rugby ticket.

 

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Or had a beer at the game.

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But I’ve been to more All Black tests than I can remember.

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Either working for television.

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Or for the match officials.

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I may have eaten a pie.

Or two.

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Spent time relaxing backstage.

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But tonight I wish I was in the crowd.

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My  8-year old is here, seeing her first All Black test.

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It’s a moment I would love to have shared.

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The only Test I wasn’t paid to attend was in 1981 with my father.

The Springboks at Lancaster Park.

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There were riot police with batons and barbed wire on the pitch.

People screaming for blood.

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I’m glad I got to see it.

And my daughter never did.