Rugby: Kerikeri ready for its big day

By David Leggat

Kerikeri's Domain is readied for the Northland-Auckland game, with the willing help of high school students on work experience and local contractors. Photo / Supplied
Kerikeri's Domain is readied for the Northland-Auckland game, with the willing help of high school students on work experience and local contractors. Photo / Supplied

Youngsters at Kerikeri High School got their uniforms signed. Older pupils spent the week doing work experience helping put up the scaffolding over the road at the domain.

They were among a large number of volunteers who have rolled up their sleeves and pitched in to turn the town into a sea of Cambridge blue. Now all that's needed for a perfect finale is a fine day and a Northland win when they play Auckland at Kerikeri Domain this afternoon.

Mike Clent, deputy principal of Kerikeri High School, reckons it's the biggest deal to hit the town in the 15 years he's been there.

The weather gods aren't expected to be smiling, although Northland - playing their first game outside Whangarei in 33 years of national championship rugby - are a decent chance to take the points.

What was a bare field a few weeks ago has been transformed.

Corporate boxes are at both ends of the ground, mounted on truck and trailer units.

A marquee has been set up to feed 200 people, alongside the temporary stand seating 3000.

"The whole Kerikeri-Bay of Islands area has bent over backwards to make whatever needed to happen, happen. They've been awesome," Northland Rugby Union operations manager Greg Shipton said.

More than 6000 tickets have been pre-sold, with a crowd of about 7000 expected.

The Auckland team, which arrived in the town of about 6000 late yesterday afternoon, will change for the game on two squash courts within the clubrooms. The referee and touch judges will prepare in the council library beside the ground.

There should be a curtain-raiser - Te Rarawa, champion club of the northernmost sub-union, Mangonui, to face Bay of Islands champions Moerewa - but the weather might have the final say on that.

Northland Rugby Union chairman Andrew Golightly is delighted the plan has come together.

"One of the visions we've got to be big on is embracing the whole of Northland," he said. "We thought this would be good for the whole union; a fantastic opportunity for the north."

The Far North District Council liked the idea, and with the Taniwha's usual home ground, Okara Park in Whangarei, not fit for play until the end of this month, the Kerikeri idea dovetailed nicely.

"Certainly the whole community have got behind it. It will be a bit of an eye-opener for the players in terms of facilities but you put that aside. It'll be a special day for Northland, and a good day for New Zealand rugby," he said.

Whether it can be repeated next year is another story. If the sums add up, Golightly believes it will be worth having a good look, but the likelihood of fewer home games under the proposed restructuring of domestic rugby, mitigates against it.

But where once the idea would have been unthinkable, today's exercise has shown it's worth keeping in mind.

Back to Clent. After all, the youth are those on whom the biggest impression should be left. Northland hero Justin Collins and a couple of other players went to school on Thursday and spoke to the pupils.

"It was wonderful," Clent said. "The kids get to see heroes in the flesh. They don't get up here very often."

Hearing from people with first-hand experience about having a career in rugby, what it takes to make the grade was all special.

"I don't know if we've had anything approaching the scope or size of this in town," muses Clent. "It's exciting for the whole town."

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