Isn't it incredible just what a few wins at the representative level can do for a nation?
Mate Ma'a Tonga was once among the minnows of world rugby league. But on the back of their best ever world cup campaign in 2017, they've gone from a guaranteed win for tier one nations to stadium fillers.
For a long time, a tier two nation had never beaten a tier one side. Then the Kiwis lost to both Fiji and Tonga at the World Cup and history was made. The Tongan side in particular left a distinct imprint on the landscape of the game with their run to the semifinals, which was clear at Mt Smart Stadium on Saturday night.
A week ago, the Kiwis faced the Australians at the same venue in front of a stadium that was about three quarters full, and that's probably a generous guess. But with Tonga on the bill, tickets were sold out before the gates opened. And when the gates did open, they were flooded by a sea of red.
Some staff around the ground said they saw Tongan fans arriving as early as nine o'clock in the morning in anticipation of the match. Sure the game was played at a neutral venue, but there was no doubting who the home team was. Among the sold out crowd of 26,214, you had your work cut out for you to spy someone not wearing red.
If ever there was an opportunity to experience what a home field advantage was supposed to feel like, this was it. Outside of perhaps All Blacks matches, this was an atmosphere you simply do not get at New Zealand sporting events. For the full 80 minutes of the match, the Tongan supporters were in full voice. The stadium came to life whenever a call went their way, and erupted when they put points on the board. In the down moments, they broke out in songs – with the vast majority of the crowd lending their voice.
Try belting out a tune during a New Zealand sporting fixture and someone else in the crowd is bound to tell you to shut your mouth. Either that or you'll find a sneaky video of yourself singing your heart out do the rounds on social media.
This wasn't simply going to a footy match to catch the game and head back home. This was over 20,000 people showing up to visually and vocally support the team and their nation in any possible way. And it didn't matter that their team put on an average performance, the crowd were behind them until the final hooter.
For those 26,214 people at the ground – regardless of where they were from or who they were supporting – this was something special to be a part of.
Take note, New Zealand. This is how it's done.