They're very fond of Sweet Caroline in the Waikato, and fair enough too. At the end of a beautiful autumn day, the chill rising, russet leaves still thick in the trees and the deepening sky above, what better song to warm the heart as you gaze out across the playing field and the cheerful, huddling crowd?

It gets a bit cold in the evening in the Tron, and what better way to deal with it? Country music with a rocky upbeat, singalongs welcome.

It was family night at the rugby on Saturday, or so it felt. Lots of little kids, happy faces, a good vibe. Everyone there to see a team they obviously like, and like supporting.

You don't get that with the Blues. People do like them: the players spend up to an hour after games, chatting, signing, doing the selfies. But you don't get the same enthusiasm in the stands. Maybe its about size: 10,000 people in a 50,000-seat venue will never feel as communally intense as 15,000 in a stadium that would barely hold more.


FMG Stadium in Hamilton is perfect like that, even if, when you say its name out loud, it sounds as if you're about to start swearing.

Everyone packed in tight and warming each other up, everyone infected with the mood of everyone else. Good times never seemed so good, I'd be inclined, to believe they never would.

The Chiefs' Damian McKenzie got an enormous roar when the players were introduced on the big screens, but so did many others. McKenzie is a freaky genius at the things he does well and a cruel disappointment in the things he gets wrong, but beyond all that he's just delightful.

The impetuous, cocky, magically gifted imp we all know from fairytales: a leprechaun, and mostly the damage he does is to the other team, not to you.

You want him on the field because he elevates the humanity, makes us all feel better about the entire enterprise. Which is a challenge for the All Blacks selectors, because he's not the best or possibly even second-best player in any of the positions he's good at.

In the Waikato they'd agree with me right up till that last sentence, and fair enough. McKenzie kicks better than an Irish dancer, steps and runs like he's Fred Astaire, throws himself at men three times his size and drags them down like your best dog on the flank of a boar. Freddy the pig dog. Limped off in the second half with a knee injury that looked so painful he should have been screaming.

But hey, it was family night. There were lots of blokes in groups too, but I reckon I saw a tenth of the amount of drinking you get every weekend at Eden Park. Maybe a twentieth.

Why is that? Possibly the drinking is done elsewhere, but when you arrive at the main gates of FMG Stadium there are food stands and only one beer stand. Chips and hotdogs, more chips and more hotdogs, which was a little bit of a disappointment, especially because the advertised steak and onion sandwiches was off the menu.


But down the end at the weiner stand they were also doing mussel fritters: enormous things, three times the thickness of the bread beneath. One of them hit the spot, exactly. Are you listening, Eden Park?

By the time they played Toto's Africa, early in the second half, the whole crowd was in a sweet spot, the feats of astonishing rugby flowing fast and free and everyone in the groove, wrapped up and loving it.

Such astonishing feats. Blues prop Karl Tu'inukuafe open running, snatching the ball from behind him with one hand, swerving, twisting, offloading, bamboozling opponents, his moustache atwirl. Replacement Blues prop Sione Mafileo doing the same when he came on, though no moustache.

Blues prop Ofa Tu'ungafasi monstering his opponent Angus Ta'avao so thoroughly he won three penalties in a row, and both of them All Blacks. Hooker James Parsons and lock Patrick Tuipulotu stopping runners dead in their tracks.

Loose forward Dalton Papali'i, who looks like a rather tall little boy who's too polite to say boo to anyone, leading the cleanouts and the scavenging and almost always being the last guy to get up after a ruck because he was the first guy to get there and stop the other guys. Last up means they've all fallen on top of you, over and over, and these are big guys. Bigger than you think.

It was all thrilling. Chiefs players did the same things. Both teams made end-to-end sweeping runs up the field, surging relentlessly on, all speed and steps and wonder passes, runners looming from nowhere to be next with the ball, defenders battering them with hit after hit, and then they'd go the other way with roles reversed. You weren't in the Tron and doing something else on Saturday night, were you? What you missed.

Rieko Ioane, scoring by reaching down to place the ball exactly in the corner between the lines of paint, thinking as he did, I'll just put it there, and all the while being airborne.

And Ma'a Nonu. What power in the passing, what fury in the tackles, treating every Chiefs player like an All Blacks selector who'd left him out of the training squad. Then came the moment, way into the second half, the Blues bashing the immoveable Chiefs, when, standing deep behind a scrum near the Chiefs' tryline, Nonu started sprinting.

Took the ball at colossal speed and smacked into the defence, and they did it to him! Like he'd run into a container filled with sand. But didn't fall over or drop the ball, he bounced back and came again, roared back at them, and that time he did crash through to score.

A superhero. One of those guys you can't knock down because they just get up again.

He scored again, after another long stretch of the team attacking but not getting there, and this time it was like, oh for heaven's sake just give me the ball, and they did, and round and over and through he went. Almost, almost, enough to win the game.

Watching the Blues is like watching great first XV rugby: excellent skills but too many mistakes. My helpful advice to coach Leon MacDonald this week is this: for every knock on in the game, add one hour a day's passing practice for the whole team. And maybe add another for every stupid pass that goes to the other side.

Kids hate passing practice because they think they're all good at it already. They're not, and when it comes to the inside passes, the late hand-offs and short offloads, without which You Will Not Win The Game, nor are the Blues.

Eventually they played Wagon Wheel. Of course they did. All the flags went up, spread around the stands and in some places in great clusters, all of them waving from side to side in syncopated unison. So rock me momma like a wagon wheel, rock me momma any way you feel.

I wish we'd won, we nearly won, but it was a hell of a good night in Hamilton. Country music 33, Blues 29.