Michael Burgess is a sports writer for the Herald on Sunday.

NRL: Panthers pride of Christchurch

Panthers v Warriors NRL rugby league match at Pepper Stadium, Penrith Australia, Saturday 15 August 2015. Photo / Photosport
Panthers v Warriors NRL rugby league match at Pepper Stadium, Penrith Australia, Saturday 15 August 2015. Photo / Photosport

A touch of league fever has hit the Garden City.

It has been a long time since an NRL game was staged in Christchurch, and the punters have responded.

Yesterday the house full signs went up at AMI Stadium for the Panthers-Warriors clash tomorrow night, and there is a buzz in the air about the game. Everyone you met yesterday - from airport information, to hotel reception to cafe staff - were talking about the match, or knew someone who was going.

It's partly the novelty factor - the last NRL game in Christchurch was in 2010 - and the feeling is similar to Auckland in the early to mid-1990s, when one or two matches a year were at Carlaw Park, before the birth of the Warriors.

But Canterbury also has a long league heritage. They dominated Auckland in the early 1990s, and in the 1950s and 1960s Canterbury and West Coast players regularly formed the Kiwis pack. The likes of Lewis Brown (Manly), Kodi Nikorima (Broncos) and Matt Mcllwrick (Sharks) have reinforced local NRL pride recently.

At South New Brighton school yesterday, Penrith players, including Kiwis Dallin Watene-Zelezniak and Peta Hiku, delivered an educational talk and gave out T-shirts before being mobbed for autographs.

On Wednesday evening, the entire Penrith squad received a spine-tingling haka from more than 100 juniors at the Hornby Panthers, after the NRL side had earlier trained on the hallowed turf of Christchurch Boys' High School.

Privately, Penrith have been overwhelmed at the reception, with one official commenting that they "wouldn't get that kind of enthusiasm at many places around Australia".

The players are also impressed.

"It's great to see the passion for the sport and it's good to give a bit back," said Penrith and Kangaroos forward Trent Merrin. "There's obviously potential here."

"It's good for the game," said Hiku, surrounded by pupils wanting papers, caps and shoes signed. "Hopefully this is the start of something."

The Warriors arrive in the city this afternoon, with more community activities scheduled for both clubs before tomorrow's match.

- NZ Herald

Get the news delivered straight to your inbox

Receive the day’s news, sport and entertainment in our daily email newsletter


© Copyright 2017, NZME. Publishing Limited

Assembled by: (static) on production apcf03 at 21 Feb 2017 23:28:11 Processing Time: 293ms