Morning Story: Siege mentality loses its appeal

By MARK STORY - MORNING STORY

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It was my first boozy rugby bus trip - and I'm not talking just any match.

The Ranfurly Shield was up for grabs. Hawke's Bay versus Wellington at the venerable Athletic Park, August 21, 1982.

Our busload comprised CHB locals affiliated with the Waipawa United Rugby Football Union.

It was a great gift from my father. He'd unearthed an extra two tickets for my older brother, in his early teens, and me, at 10, to join him.

So when I say it was a boozy trip, I mean the two Story siblings were the only sober passengers; the rest guzzled canned beer from Waipawa to Wellington. The onboard volume rose with each crack of a can and with every click of the odometer.

The Magpies were running hot. Three weeks earlier they'd narrowly lost 12-13 on McLean Park to the touring Wallabies. Our Central Hawke's Bay busload had a vested interest courtesy of Waipawa United, Magpie and former All Black Ken Taylor.

We were up against All Blacks Stu Wilson, Bernie Fraser, Allan Hewson and Murray Mexted.

Back when there wasn't the slightest hint of irony in sporting a hairy top lip, the later three accessorised with tremendous moustaches.

Sentinel-like, Athletic Park's clamour was unbelievable. An unruly, unholy choir. It could just be nostalgia, but I swear the old stadiums' wooden acoustics were superior to today's.

Unfortunately for both his Waipawa groupies and the Magpies, Ken Taylor hobbled off injured early in the match. But the black and white hoops were full of fight.

An unopened beer can thrown at full noise from the top rows exploded near us. Our section of the stand stood in outrage, pointed at the alleged thrower and chanted - "Out! Out! Out!"

Like a mass boozed jury we demanded justice by way of eviction.

Some idiot was hauled out of the stand by police sporting tall blue thimble hats and moustaches to rival Mexted's.

It was my first taste of a siege mentality.

By dint of sheer numbers, we could rule collectively, we could order police around, we could urge our team to victory.

But despite occupying Wellington's 22metre line for the final minutes, a dropped goal sailed wide of the posts and the Magpies lost 12-13 for the second time that season.

For a lad from the provinces, the score was immaterial. The trip and memories remain a triumph.

Fast forward 30 years and beleaguered coaches Danny Lee and Craig Philpott are experiencing the flipside of such passion. After, and at times during the Magpies' forgettable season, locals sharpened their pitchforks and heaped venom on the two. The Bay's famous "siege mentality" took on a disturbing hue.

Cut them slack, I say. This season's squad had neither the caliber not confidence of last year's lineup.

Besides, I question the commonly held belief that both success and failure are the coach's doing.

If my own failed sporting flirtations taught me anything, it's that on-field performances had little to do with weeknight training or the pre-game speech.

More often than not it had everything to do with who you were trying to impress - yourself, peers, pals or, more crucially, the fairer sex on the sideline.

No, I'm not suggesting this year's cheerleaders should be next year's coaches. I'm suggesting the simplistic link between a coach and the scoreboard is all too tenuous one.

Speaking of who's watching on the sidelines, who is watching?

The word siege implies a fortress. And as a father of many kids, that's how the home park prices have manifested themselves these past few seasons. That is, an impenetrable park.

While in Auckland five weeks ago I spotted an advertisement enticing local families to get to Eden Park for that afternoon's home game against Wellington. "Kids free entry", it said.

I later discovered children were admitted free to each and every Eden Park home game this season. Astonishing how an identical product can be so disparately priced.

Back in Napier, prohibitive ticketing continues to preclude yesteryear's siege mentality.

You can't have this ethos without bums on seats.

If kids were allowed in for free, the prolific breeders among us would easily fill your stands.

To Danny Lee and Craig Philpott, all the best for next season. You've been unfairly shafted by a fickle mob of fairweather fans this year.

But of course, so too have fans been shown conditional loyalty by the union.

From where I'm sitting (on my couch watching delayed coverage with my kids on Prime TV) there's something lamentable about seeing your home team lose in front of corporate boxes chock-a-block - while the stands remain empty.


 


Mark Story is assistant editor at Hawke's Bay Today.

- Hawkes Bay Today

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