John Roughan 's Opinion

John Roughan is an editorial writer and columnist for the New Zealand Herald.

John Roughan: Man who found our better half

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Snedden's book a reminder that rugby can be fun, even for Kiwis

Martin Snedden, former Rugby New Zealand 2011 chief, has written a book on organising the World Cup, titled A Stadium of 4 Million. Photo / Dean Purcell
Martin Snedden, former Rugby New Zealand 2011 chief, has written a book on organising the World Cup, titled A Stadium of 4 Million. Photo / Dean Purcell

This day a year ago we were reading reports of the opening night of the Rugby World Cup. Admittedly, the coverage was dominated by Auckland's public transport disaster, but even that was a sign that something extraordinary was beginning to happen.

Later this day, at North Shore stadium, there was another sign. Kiwis turned up in droves to watch a game that didn't involve the All Blacks.

They didn't just turn up; many of them dressed up to support France or Japan, and whooped it up as Kiwi crowds almost never do.

Over the next few weeks I saw the same thing happen at Whangarei, Hamilton, Napier and Palmerston North for teams from Canada, Romania and Georgia. Reportedly, it was also happening in Rotorua, New Plymouth, Nelson, Invercargill ...

To drive around the country during those weeks was to see a rare unity of national purpose.

Everywhere, in town squares, shop windows and in the front paddocks of farms, the silver fern was flying and signs said, "Go All Blacks". But it wasn't just about the long wait for another World Cup win. It wasn't that grim.

It wasn't just about rugby, either. The man who deserves most of the credit for all this, Martin Snedden, has just written a book about the organising effort under the title of its aim: A Stadium of 4 Million.

In the book he writes: "I didn't believe we were a country of four million rugby supporters. It worried me that there were in fact hundreds of thousands of Kiwis, maybe a million or more, who didn't give two hoots about rugby or who actively disliked the game and everything it stood for.

"Most of all, it worried me that the research was showing that for every two males who were rugby supporters, there was only one female supporter. There are more than two million females living in New Zealand. That was a sector of our society that we needed to engage and win over."

That he succeeded is history now. Women loved the World Cup and they more than men, I think, made it what it was.

Snedden attributes most of this to the festival they instigated that made the World Cup an "expo" of art, music, fine food and Kiwi ingenuity, among other things. But I suspect the main reason was that just about everyone wanted to have fun.

Who cared whether rugby was good, bad or indifferent? It was just a game that this country happened to play with great success and even those who disliked it could enjoy the attention, with nonchalance if they wanted.

The greatest achievement of Snedden's operation to my mind was to spread the event over the whole country. That wasn't as easy as it sounds. The finances of the event meant they had to make all their money from stadium seats and it would have been more economic to hold the entire event in the main centres.

The visiting teams would have been happy with that. The idea that they might want to get well-acquainted with a particular region was dashed when their officials were consulted. They didn't want their players to be in one place too long.

They seemed to know that professional rugby has weakened the game's place in the provinces. The hope that they might be immersed in the warmth and rigour of small-town rugby communities was a romantic delusion of mine.

Snedden realised quickly that their plans were beyond the resources of local rugby unions and, by and large, he says, the host unions accepted that. The heavy lifting was left to local bodies who financed the upgrading of the ubiquitous Rugby Park, renamed "Stadium (Region)", and set up committees of business leaders to ensure the event was well promoted locally and commercial opportunities were not missed.

The stadium (naming rights now available) in every small city is the most visible legacy of the World Cup, but it would be a pity if some of the spirit of the event cannot be retained around rugby.

Now that the cup is won, the demon slain, surely our rugby culture could lighten up. It seems not, on the evidence of this week's criticism of Sir Graham Henry for giving Argentina some coaching for the game against the All Blacks tonight.

What a pity to hear his successor muttering about it. I'd hoped Steve Hansen's sights were set as high as Henry's for the good of the game.

Our dour, undemonstrative way of watching rugby and our reputation for going very dark when the All Blacks don't win were a constant worry before the World Cup.

Snedden doesn't dwell on that in the book. He brought out our better half and made it fun.

A Stadium of 4 Million will be published by Hodder Moa on Tuesday.

- NZ Herald

John Roughan

John Roughan is an editorial writer and columnist for the New Zealand Herald.

John Roughan is an editorial writer and columnist for the New Zealand Herald. A graduate of Canterbury University with a degree in history and a diploma in journalism, he started his career on the Auckland Star, travelled and worked on newspapers in Japan and Britain before returning to New Zealand where he joined the Herald in 1981. He was posted to the Parliamentary Press Gallery in 1983, took a keen interest in the economic reform programme and has been a full time commentator for the Herald since 1986. He became the paper's senior editorial writer in 1988 and has been writing a weekly column under his own name since 1996. His interests range from the economy, public policy and politics to the more serious issues of life.

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