The scoreboard was a sheet of plywood, painted white, up on a couple of posts, which they kept up to date from the back of a ute. Sonny Bill Williams was there, down on one knee on the sideline, intent on the game, with Rieko Ioane in the same pose right next to him. Not praying, that's just how they do it when they're the Blues waterboys. Across the field, co-captain Patrick Tuipulotu was also on water duty.

No rain for a month and everywhere the hot dry paddocky smell of parched grass and baked dirt. It was the Blues' first game of the year, a pre-season hit out against the Chiefs, but it's Rugby World Cup year and the All Blacks were all excused today.

Which didn't stop it being a Very Big Day in Kaikohe. The team had been in town all week. Rostered to meet the local businesses, do the school visits. At the captains' run on Friday, the entire population of Northland College turned up.

Well, what was the principal going to do? The school's right over the road from the park.


Rugby's important to Kaikohe. It's straight up and honest and it's what the kids do. Although Kaikohe's most famous contemporary exponent isn't in the Blues or the All Blacks: she's Sevens star Portia Woodman.

And rugby's not as big as it used to be, because league is on the rise. So Kaikohe's rugby bigwigs, along with the local politicians and business leaders, were very keen to get this game.

It's the little town that wants to. Blighted by meth, by crime, by shops that have closed down and moved away. But also full of people who love it there and want to make it work. There's a good hotel in the old BNZ building, with stellar service in the restaurant; a good fish and chips shop; iwi programmes and a busy civic centre, tucked down a lane off the main street, which isn't so busy. Some determined Maori artists and craftspeople. The fabulous coast-to-coast bike trail passes right through.

Still, not many visitors for the game stayed in town overnight, or even for a meal. The Blues themselves didn't: they were at the Copthorne Hotel, half an hour down the road at Waitangi.

At the park, unlike in the town, it was festival time. Families, couples, kids; and lots of groups of friends, who more likely than not were women, not men. Saturday afternoon at the rugby, Kaikohe styles, 2019 styles. Rugby is different now.

On the sound system they played Africa, YMCA, and Pussycat Dolls singing "put your hands on my body". But the go-to anthem was, as it possibly always will be, Slice of Heaven.

Also on the loud speaker, Far North mayor John Carter spoke of how successful it had all been. "This is our Kaikohe," he said more than once. "This is our Mid-North."

The game was sold out, he added. "And it's been financially worthwhile, I can tell you that."

Kyan Clark, 14, Cody Williams, 15, and William Parslow, 15, support their team. Photo / Peter de Graaf
Kyan Clark, 14, Cody Williams, 15, and William Parslow, 15, support their team. Photo / Peter de Graaf

Which, presumably, he did not mean to suggest was the only measure of success.

Strangely, though, in "our Kaikohe", neither Carter nor almost anyone else on the microphone that afternoon used a single word of Te Reo. Not a kia ora to be heard. It was as if they were blind to the people they were talking to.

The exceptions came from the police, who did a demonstration, and then just before kickoff, from the haka.

That was great: adults and kids from the college, commanding the entire field to get everyone worked up and then doing the haka itself between the two teams, standing in two long lines to either side.

The three things they kept announcing: free sunscreen at the police tent, free water at St John, and this is how you find the beer tents.

The whole pre-game was great. Kids played touch, followed by an under-18 game. Touch is the perfect team sport: you win as a team and it's not enough to be good at it on your own. You could see the best kids learning that, learning how to suppress their heroic instincts for the greater good. The 18-year-olds knew it.

There was a dance exhibition by eight Kaikohe girls who'd been together for only two weeks, which sounded impossible because their timing was impeccable and they were undulatingly, snappingly brilliant.

As for the players, they warmed up, did their drills, stood around loose limbed. The tell of a peak-fitness athlete: relaxed shoulders, their calves and insteps holding them just a little off the ground.

Then it was all on. The Blues started with hard gay abandon, sweeping down the field and nearly scoring, and then making mistakes. Oh yes! Oh no! Eventually, they scored. The Chiefs quickly hit back.

Five-all at the end of the first quarter. Both teams played hard and fast, the collisions had all the oofs and clunks you want, and every breakaway, from either side, was run down by determined-to-prove-a-point defenders. Most of the tries came on the wing, which tells you about backline competence, although none of the wide conversions even came close to going over.

Sophie Rzepecky, 7, gets an autograph from Harry Plummer. Photo / Peter de Graaf
Sophie Rzepecky, 7, gets an autograph from Harry Plummer. Photo / Peter de Graaf

But only one side played like they needed to win. By three-quarter time the Blues were ahead 31-10; at fulltime they'd added another 12. That's a good day at the rugby: 43-10 to your side, and almost all the points from tries.

The score didn't really matter, even to the crowd. For the team, this was a game to get the muscle memory going, ease a few combos into action, give the dirt trackers and the newbies some game time. But the Blues did win, commandingly. Oh yes.

And if the score "didn't matter", the game did. The event did. Little steps, said the woman in the cafe at breakfast when I asked her what it meant for the town. She smiled. She was excited and anxious. Every little step helps, she said.

At the end they opened the gates for the great post-match milling with the players. Tana Umaga was popular, Sonny Bill Williams too, actually all of them. Ma'a Nonu had been excused the trip so he wasn't there. Nobody got really mobbed: everyone too shy, too chill, too damn hot to get worked up.

You get your photo taken with a star in Kaikohe the same way you do it anywhere in this country: eye contact, the phone presented, a quick flick up of the chin. Maybe you say Bro. Just quietly. After, maybe, Sweet bro.

Blokes who looked like they'd come straight from hunting pigs took turns to snuggle close to Akira Ioane; his brother Rieko seemed more popular with the girls. It's a game for everyone, rugby.

An hour after the game was over, it finally rained. Gently, it was good rain, the rain you get in summer when you can sit under a tree and watch it and it's still hot and it's the end of a good day.