Legend has it that at an English school named Rugby in 1823, William Webb Ellis picked up a soccer ball and ran with it. From that day forth, the game of rugby was inflicted on an unsuspecting world. A myriad of endless rules, a thuggish culture of “smash him bro” and in New Zealand, a game that took hold of the national consciousness so absolutely that it leaves little room for other far more refined, cultured and otherwise infinitely superior sports such as gumboot throwing.
When my partner and I planned our holiday in and around the South Island paradise of Queenstown this Summer break, one of the first things my mind turned to was will there be any football there? Sadly, the answer was no. Oh well, I thought. A break from football would probably be healthy. I can happily make do with cricket… But sadly, no cricket either. Lawn bowls then? Petanque? Darts? Sumo wrestling? Tiddlywinks??? Oh dear, there is only one live sporting event in Queenstown this summer. You guessed it, rugby. Sigh. Oh well, I’ve always been a believer in the old adage of when in Rome, do as the Romans do…
Queenstown used to be a sleepy little holiday town where folks from around the South Island would spend their summers admiring the lakes and mountains in relative peace and tranquility. But alas, those days are gone. It’s now a tourist’s money-sucking adventure playground where people flock from around the world to ride jet boats, jump out of perfectly good aeroplanes, jump off bridges with elastic tied to their ankles and goodness knows what else. The consequence of that is the place is now overrun by people of all nationalities. This is nice in some ways, but the problem is you have to search hard to experience the real Queenstown.
That’s where the New Zealand National Sevens Rugby tournament came in quite handy. Once through the gates, what we found was a kiwi heartland institution. A sunny grass bank, megatons of beer being consumed, insults flying, casual racism about players of Pacific descent in the teams, and hard core parochialism.
I was careful to attend incognito. The last thing you want in a place like this is for anyone to discover you live in Auckland. So naturally, I wore my Waikato jersey to throw them off the scent. This didn’t stop me from being challenged to a fight on the bank but it probably did save me from worse fates.
Sevens rugby is very different from the fifteen aside version. Faster, more spectacular and thankfully over much quicker. Seven minute halves mean that a game only takes fifteen minutes to play and so over the two days of this tournament, over a hundred matches were possible. I only attended the second day, but in hindsight should probably have restricted it to just the late afternoon semi-finals and finals as it got very boring after a while, especially sitting firstly in the hot sun on rough concrete and then wet grass as we searched for some shade. It is a very long day.
There were some great highlights though. The women’s games were great to see included in the programme for the first time and Waikato making it all the way to the women’s final made these games extra enjoyable. My love for the underdog was also satisfied by the men’s trophy for the overall tournament winner going to Taranaki for the first time in their history, defeating North Harbour 32-17 in the final.
One of the most quintessentially heartland New Zealand aspects for me was the tradition of the ‘undie run’. Players who didn’t score any tries in the tournament had to run the length of the field and back in their underpants. This brought back many childhood memories of when the ultimate sanction for performing poorly in anything from a game of pool to a game of scrabble could result in a ‘downtrow’.
After ten years of this tournament being in Queenstown every summer, it’s moving to Rotorua next year. It makes zero difference to me personally as I won’t be attending either way. But it’s still a little bit sad. My sense is the Queenstown locals are very proud of their part in New Zealand’s rugby tradition. With the departure of this tournament, it seems as though yet another part of the real Queenstown is lost, and an authentic kiwi experience will disappear from a place where they are few and far between nowadays. I’m glad I was there for its last hurrah.
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A grassroots sports photography enthusiast based in Auckland, New Zealand, and a fan of the most magnificent football club on earth - A.S. Roma.