Rugby World Cup: Fortress Eden Park

By Michael Dickison

Fans turned Eden Park's disjointed stands into a screaming, stomping beast. Photo / Greg Bowker
Fans turned Eden Park's disjointed stands into a screaming, stomping beast. Photo / Greg Bowker

Michael Dickison witnessed the evolution of Eden Park from a barren stadium to a splendid cup venue where the All Blacks could not be beaten

It's hard to even remember the drizzle of June, when Eden Park was sterile with its refurbished stands and endlessly grey.

The stadium went through its first test runs ahead of the Rugby World Cup, and the empty grey seats and empty grey concourses had a long time to wait before they could flaunt their colours.

Its long history as a ground where the All Blacks have been rarely beaten, took on the feel of a cup fortress as the tournament progressed. The crowds swarmed in from early September - shouting, waving flags; dressed in red and mostly black - and they wouldn't let up till they pushed New Zealand to the top of a tide of festivity.

Eden Park before the Cup left impressions of plastic seats and concrete, motley stands stacked higher through a string of costly upgrades.

At Super Rugby matches, the seams between the giant structures dominated small huddled crowds. The visitors then were mostly foreign students disappointed by barren support for the local team.

The spectators had come for distractions - live commentary over loudspeakers and the swishing skirts of half-time cheerleaders.

They watched the movements around the field, but there was nothing at stake.

How many staff idly staffed the food stalls, waiting for the crowds that wouldn't arrive for three months?

Towering temporary stands gradually took shape as the Cup drew near, first just a tangle of scaffolding then, with elevation and comfy seats, coming to offer a fabulous end-on view for budget concious fans with D-category tickets.

Staff showed journalists around the stadium as its final touches came together, pointing out rows of media stations crowding out prime seats and even coaches' boxes. Broadcast booths in the shape of caravans had multiplied on every visit, wedged into every crevice around the park.

Eden Park filled up once in August to its new capacity of just over 61,000, when Australia flew in for a Tri-Nations match. But it was still serious business then. The cheers would only grow louder. There was anticipation for the big event, but few could imagine how Eden Park would be transformed.

The train network crashed spectacularly on the World Cup's opening night but fans who made it were easily able to pack Eden Park and turn the stadium's disjointed stands into a screaming, stomping beast.

The opening ceremony was a mesmerising spectacle that took the atmosphere in the stadium to a new level.

Tonga, Australia, Ireland, France, Fiji, Samoa, England, Scotland, South Africa, Argentina and Wales in turn took to the pitch, and the grey stands erupted in national colours.

The Ireland-Australia game gave New Zealanders a taste of the raucous, joyous atmosphere of the best international grounds.

Sometimes the supporters sang and knew what to chant, but mostly they were locals putting on another nation's colours and revelling in the masquerade - collectively shouting louder than they ever had.

The singing of God Defend New Zealand at the final was done with unheard of gusto by normally reserved Kiwis.

The excitement at every match drowned out the concrete and plastic structures underneath.

A shiny waterfront stadium it was not, neither was it a traditional rectangular ground with sweeping stands; but Eden Park needed little beyond some dazzling, high intensity rugby and the passion of fans to become a Cup fortress for the All Blacks.

- NZ Herald

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