Wellington unfurled a vast, green welcome mat to the AFL, and the blokes in the guernseys strolled on through like they’d been here a thousand times.
It was Westpac Stadium not as we know it, but as we’d like to know it more often. The stadium has always battled an identity crisis; too vast and the wrong shape for rugby and football, too soulless and uncomfortable for cricket. At last, a snug fit, even if it might be only once a year.
For a run of the mill regular season club match, this was a grand occasion and drew a crowd of 22,546, even if the match wasn’t a stunner.
Close to 5000 Australians flocked; the rest were curious locals more accustomed to a skip pass than a hand pass. One family of four drove two hours to experience their first Kiwi AFL fix and declared it a great night out.
It had to be on Anzac Day. The respectful nod to those who served their country, was matched by the novelty value and expectation of the historic first competition match outside Australia.
Stan Walker belted out a stirring God Defend New Zealand. The two teams burst through the traditional giant banner marked: “Thank You Wellington, New Zealand”.
The match footballs were delivered by the children of New Zealand war veterans. A spine-tingling Last Post ended to a fair dinkum scream of “Go the Saaaints”. This was a footy match, after all.
Lambton Quay and Courtenay Pl had echoed all day with Australian accents, partly muffled by red, black and white scarves. Saints supporters, all 3000 of them, mostly snared the prime halfway seats while around 1500 Sydney Swans fans nestled to the side.
And there had to be Mystery. Councillor John ‘Mystery’ Morrison, a central figure in Wellington’s AFL flirtation, strode out in his St Kilda scarf and tossed the coin before the first bounce. Game on.
For the uninitiated locals, expectant and waiting to be entertained, AFL’s quirks would have elicited some giggles.
The seven umpires, resplendent in lime shirts and socks, marched in unison to the centre then warmed up with the same fervour as the players. The Saints cheer squad lined the goal at the southern end brandishing giant pom-poms which could have been swiped from a car wash, waving them menacingly whenever a Swan took aim at the posts.
The game is an acquired taste, although far better in person than on television. The first quarter was a mass of arms and legs, jolting off the ball contact and little flow. Players struggled on the slippery surface. St Kilda’s Justin Koschitzke unleashed a fist pump as he booted the historic first goal on New Zealand soil.
The Swans, reigning premiers, dwarfed their opposites at the first bounce then showed their class in the third quarter to draw clear. It became reasonable viewing, not edge of the seat stuff. The Saints got within 10 points, the roar went up but it was too late.
Prime Minister John Key presented the Simpson-Henderson Trophy, named after two Anzac war heroes, to Swans co-captain Kieren Jack. St Kilda, the home team, might have lost the game but they won some new fans who vowed to be back next year.
– © Fairfax NZ News