Peter Bills at the Rugby World Cup: A million thanks, NZ, for such a fantastic time

Willie Apiata, VC, stands head and shoulders above presidents, prime ministers and princes for his humility. Photo / Richard Robinson
Willie Apiata, VC, stands head and shoulders above presidents, prime ministers and princes for his humility. Photo / Richard Robinson

Perhaps we should call it the turtle syndrome. After all, that steady creature makes progress only when he sticks his neck out.

New Zealand certainly stuck its neck out in bidding for the 2011 Rugby World Cup. Even before it had won the vote, the sneering had begun.

Too small, too far away, nothing to do - the charge sheet drawn up by the uneducated of the rugby world was lengthy.

But some knew better. And the decision to award the 2011 tournament to this country has been handsomely vindicated.

The pitch to secure the World Cup talked of a stadium of more than four million. Sure, a neat little marketing slogan, we thought. But New Zealand delivered, and how. And what has emerged for me, a visitor to this country since 1975 (remember that waterlogged test match against Scotland at Eden Park?) is the way this land has developed so much.

Now, the World Cup experience has provided a quantum leap forward.

What the many visitors to this great country have seen these past seven weeks is the real New Zealand, a burgeoning land trying to carve its own niche in the world.

This country may lack the great mineral wealth of Australia and the vast numbers of an Asian country to compete at the top of the world business tree. But what it does possess is something special - a uniquely beautiful land not over-populated or over-polluted, a place where the visitor can marvel at nature's gifts and enjoy an increasingly rare standard of hospitality.

New Zealand is hardly recognisable from that quaint little place I splashed into that shocking, wet weekend 36 years ago. Business, housing, facilities, agricultural advances, attitudes - just about everything has changed. Yet, wonderfully, that special kiwi hospitality hasn't altered one iota.

It is the people who make this country so special, and it's the people who have guaranteed the success of the World Cup.

We were reminded many times over that people are the essence of life. During my stay, I met a huge divergence of human beings.

For me, the number one interview of the whole eight-week experience wasn't with anyone from rugby. Talking to New Zealand's VC winner Willie Apiata was uplifting.

Calm, quiet, self-effacing, almost cowed by his fame, Apiata is one of the humblest men I have ever met. I've interviewed presidents, prime ministers, princes and such like but, Nelson Mandela excepted, this guy stood head and shoulders above the lot of them.

On the ground during the cup, I was greeted with great warmth and courtesy. There were those whom I'd never met before but shouted me drives up the coast, visits to their homes, to restaurants or evenings at their place for drinks/dinner.

One night, a lady who was a total stranger picked me up at a dark bus stop the wrong side of midnight and took me to the door of my apartment block. Extraordinary kindness.

And I shall remember, too, the unfailing courtesy of the RWC staff at grounds like Eden Park who went out of their way to assist visitors. Always cheery faces there, too.

Last but by no means least I'd like to thank those who came up to me in the street for a chat and a kind word.

It has been a delight to experience this unique friendship.

It is a good thing that NZ is the proud holder of the Webb Ellis Cup once again, as this fact may help sustain the country through some tough times.

But what encourages me about New Zealand's future is the terrific will and character of its people. This great rugby fiesta, one of the best World Cups we have seen, has underlined the many qualities that make this land unique.

So as I head out of the country, I'd just like to express a simple, humble thought: Thanks New Zealand, a million thanks for everything.

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