By KELLY EXELBY
Super 14 rugby looks set to become an annual feature on Tauranga's burgeoning sporting landscape.
Saturday's clash between the Chiefs and Stormers at Blue Chip Stadium was the first time the ground had hosted a game at that level, with the event given a ringing endorsement by Chiefs management and the visiting South Africans.
Tauranga Domain held a Super 12 game between the Chiefs and Cats in 2001 when Waikato Stadium was being upgraded.
Gary Dawson, chief executive of the Chiefs franchise, said yesterday the crowd of 16,500 that packed the revamped stadium exceeded expectations.
"We thought if we got 15,000 along then we'd be happy, so to get 16,500 was tremendous and I'd deem the whole night a success - the atmosphere, the crowd as well as winning the game [30-20]," Dawson said.
"Obviously a lot of things worked in [Tauranga's] favour - the fact it was Easter, the number of holidaymakers in town and the good weather - and it'll be up to the Chiefs board whether there's another game here next year, although I can't see a reason why we wouldn't bring another game back to Tauranga."
For Bob Clarkson, who spent $16 million to build the stadium, Saturday's game was the realisation of a dream.
"I walked into the ground on Saturday, with the 9000 covered seats and the floodlights going and, for the first time, it actually looked like a real stadium. The roof contained the noise a hell of a lot better."
The rest of the stadium would be roofed over the next three months, although Clarkson, Tauranga's MP, was still angry at Tauranga City Council's inaction in financing the multi-use facility.
"I actually pointed out to [Tauranga Mayor] Stuart Crosby on Saturday night the part of the stadium that wasn't roofed and told him that's the part I was waiting for council to pay for.
"I'm way past perturbed at council's lack of involvement - I'm very bloody angry and quite distressed that here we are holding 24 major events here a year and we're virtually ignored by them."
It is understood Clarkson has been approached by a city north of Tauranga wanting him to relocate his stadium there. "I don't want to talk specifics at the moment but this council had better wake up or they might just get a shock."
Rather than a profit share or charging stadium management a "fee" to host the game, Dawson said they rented the ground for the game, a similar arrangement to the one they had with Waikato Stadium
He said the only issue they had with the ground was the "patchy" state of the pitch, with spraypaint used to mask divots and ruts left on the field after six months of speedway.
"From a presentation point of view Baypark didn't have time to get it (the field) up to standard," Dawson said. "They worked hard in the time they had but it was such a short lead-in time from the stockcar season."
Some of the players had voiced concern at the unevenness of the playing surface, although Clarkson didn't see pitch quality as a major issue.
"I doubt anyone noticed it unless they were looking for it but it's something we'll fix for next year.
"I'll be talking to Sharon (Jackman, stadium manager) about finishing speedway earlier so instead of getting satisfactory condition we have more time to get it perfect."
Stormers coach Kobus van der Merwe said they couldn't wait to get back to Tauranga after spending a "fantastic" week in the city.
"As a city it reminded us a lot of home and the boys love getting out of the big cities to a region where we were treated fabulously.
"It was a pity we weren't here earlier in the season because in the week we've had here we've bonded a lot stronger and have had a good time relaxing, which has allowed us to focus on our rugby when we've needed to."
Van der Merwe said they had been intrigued by Blue Chip Stadium's history and the fact it had been built by one man passionate about speedway.
"They really stepped up to the mark in their event management and all the guys have talked about wanting to come back. We'll be putting our hand up for another Super 14 game here."
By KELLY EXELBY