Wellington Sevens

Sevens Up

Only included for the sake of completism, this is a clear case of garbage in and garbage out. A trip to see the Wellington Sevens rugby competition in NZ may not have been the best idea for Ralph magazine in 2001, but I certainly did my best to make it worse. Not particularly funny or interesting, thank you, move along. Photographer Andrew Coffey.

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A BEAUTIFUL girl in a short skirt on the back of a big Harley motors through the centre of Wellington. Above her head, in the stiff breeze ripping in off Lambton Harbour, flutters a flag, saying “International Sevens”. The rugby is in town.

The bike, driven by a happy grizzled bloke in a beard, moves slowly on, with five similar bikes and the rest of the parade. An instant crowd lines the streets, made up of office workers out for a lunchtime sandwich.

Rugby players from 16 nations perch on floats, throwing chocolate bars at the crowd. The Chinese players sit on a segment of the Great Wall on wheels, looking both happy and baffled. The Samoans and Cook Islanders shiver in traditional dress. The South Africans stand on a barren trailer in tracksuits looking pissed off.

On the back of a sponsor’s float Eva the Bulgarian is wearing a lurid pink-pants-and-T-shirt combination only she could make acceptable. She thrusts her breasts out and throws a chocolate bar. I shoulder aside some guy in a suit to catch it.

The Telecom New Zealand International Sevens tournament in Wellington is just one of a rolling series of seven-a-side Rugby Union tournaments contested throughout the world. The most famous of them all is the Hong Kong Sevens, often seen as a good excuse for a very long party. In reality, that’s what they all are.

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Friday

The rugby begins the next day, at Wellington’s stadium, known to the sponsors as the WestpacTrust Stadium, and to everyone else as “The Cake Tin”. The Sevens format is growing in popularity, and for the first time since it was first staged here three years ago, it is a sell-out.

At 1pm kick-off, though, the Cake Tin is mostly empty. One stand, known as “The Redzone” is fuller than the rest. Most of the people in it are dressed like idiots. A group of about 10, all wearing blue wigs, their faces painted black with a white cross, are screaming wildly before a ball’s even been kicked. “We wanna be on telly!” shouts a woman, pointing at the big screen at the far end of the field.

“We’re a group of friends from all over New Zealand who get together and have fun,” explains Chris, from Auckland. “We were pissed before we got here. If New Zealand wins we care about this a lot. If they don’t we don’t care at all.”

A few rows over, I ask Keely and Jo, two Auckland girls in cowboy hats, who is going to win. “Japan, whatever,” says Jo.

You don’t care, do you?

“We’re just here for the after-match party. This is our first visit to Wellington in about 16 months. Wellington guys are a lot hotter than Poms,” Jo says randomly.

What do you think of Sevens?

“You get the hottest guys from 16 countries here… ”

On the pitch, Fiji is busy smearing Canada around. At the end, Canada crawl off, beaten 60-10. Games are only 15 minutes long, but on a full-sized pitch that’s plenty of time for a good team to find the holes in your defence.

I see a block of seats occupied by Canadians and go over to commiserate with them. They are not Canadians. Where are you all from? I wonder. “Wellington!” They are all wearing red T-shirts saying “Canada 2002” on the back. Some of them are also wearing Viking helmets.

Only one of them is not wearing a Canada 2002 T-shirt. He is a Canadian. “I came over to talk to my fellow countrymen,” he says sadly.

It is 2.30pm and the stadium is filling up now. China is taking on Samoa, which looks like some mythical battle between elves and mountain giants. The Chinese tackle the Samoans, but the Samoans don’t notice. The little Chinamen lose 46-nil and come off looking slightly less happy than yesterday, and still baffled.

A Mexican wave makes it halfway round the ground but dies of apathy. A fool with a mic wades into the crowd to get people’s best chant for the big screen. In a corner, below the corporate boxes, five blokes dressed as the Blues Brothers do a dance. The atmosphere is building.

At 3pm South Africa takes on France and beats them 14-7 in a very tight game. The crowd cheers for both teams equally. They cheer the small boy who drives a kart on with the kicking tee. They cheer everything. On a rail a banner says, optimistically, “China will roll you.” Irish flags are being waved. The Irish team isn’t here, but that’s the Irish for you.

While England plays Papua New Guinea, the team from the United States warms up vigorously by the side of the pitch. After half an hour they are still warming up. If they carry on they will be too tired to play the match.

There is a big cheer as the New Zealand team runs on – to AC/DC, strangely. The USA stops warming up and starts playing them. In the first minute a Kiwi player is sin-binned for battering a Yank off the ball; then the USA scores. This is a surprise, to say the least.

Startled into action, New Zealand scores in return, and starts throwing the ball casually around the pitch, scoring whenever they feel like it. There is a sound like purring, which I realise is that of Kiwis watching their team grinding another into the dust.

The next match on is Argentina versus the Cook Islands, but no-one cares. With the first important game of the day out of the way, everyone’s gone to the toilet.

In the Redzone, I try and talk to bunch of people with names like Dingo and Lulu, Tinkerbell, Angela, Edge and Rhino. They are all wearing T-shirts with “Redzone 2002” on the front, in case they become disoriented. Judging by the state of them at 5pm, this is a good idea. “All we care about is beer,” says Dingo. “And seeing a few tries.”

“I’m getting married on Sunday,” says Angela.

Does your husband know where you are?

“No.”

The Australian team comes out for its match against Japan, to massive – and predictable – boos. Amazingly, Japan goes seven-nil up, then hangs on for the win. The Japanese players leave the field like war heroes back from a long campaign.

Through the afternoon and evening, the rest of the pool matches play out, a numbing spectacle of full-throttle rugby. Fiji beats Tonga; Wales beats Canada; England beats the USA; China is trampled 61-0 by South Africa. Late on, a male streaker dashes wildly over the floodlit grass and performs a couple of quite decent sidesteps before being, er, tackled by a steward.

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Saturday

Saturday is (slightly) more serious. The competition is more fierce; all the better teams play each other, and the minnows get to play China. It is a much hotter day. The famous Wellington wind, that had caused my plane to nearly cartwheel onto the tarmac, is gone. The Cake Tin fills up fast.

At 2.30pm, once China has been disposed of 36-5 by the Cook Islands, and Canada has beaten Papua New Guinea (much to the delight of the fake-Canadians), New Zealand plays Wales. The Kiwis are 36-nil up by half-time. It is perfect rugby. Every time the Kiwis get the ball they score. They get the ball a lot.

After 15 minutes Wales has been murdered 78-nil. Those watching are beside themselves. The party is on. The Blues Brothers do another routine nearly the same as the first; a guy in an Austin Powers outfit bravely jitterbugs his way through the pissed blokes in the Redzone; a sex-doll is being thrown high into the air; pop music blares after every try.

I talk to girls in blue shirts and multi-coloured hats, happily bouncing up and down.

Can I interview you for RALPH Magazine?

“No! We’ve got clothes on. We’re from North Harbour. We support New Zealand. And Canada. We’re just a bunch of friends. We’re wearing this because we all went to the same shop.”

Good-natured booing erupts as South Africa and Australia take the field. The support has generally been for the underdog, but here are two old enemies of the Kiwi. Ominously, South Africa beats a strong Australia team 28-nil.

Like the previous day, there is no let-up in the rugby and no slackening of pace. The action is all in cameo; there is no ebb and flow, no fatigue. The tries are endless; there are plenty of illegal forward passes, but no-one seems to mind, least of all the referees. People tune in and out. Sometimes they clap and cheer; sometimes the most spectacular run is ignored.

As for the teams, no-one is left out. China has lost every single game and is still in it. If you can’t win the cup, you’ve got a shot at the plate, and if not that, the bowl, or the shield. Finally, at 5pm, China’s chances run out. They get the wooden spoon. The players do a lap of honour and get a big round of applause, despite being so crap. Or because of it. Just after 5pm four blokes in dresses arrive, and they get a big round of applause, too.

At 6.30pm I am down beside the pitch. It is half in shade and half still in blazing sunshine. Everyone is drunk, but good drunk; the police presence is minimal. High up in the stands a gorgeous tanned girl is dancing like she’s making love. She comes down to get her photo taken. Are you having a good time? I ask. “Oh yes,” she breathes, pointing her bronzed cleavage at me.

Empty plastic beer bottles cover the grass in front of the advertising boards. When the losing England players do their lap of honour, someone chucks a full one down. A player picks it up, says “Cheers” and downs it.

A huge cheer erupts as New Zealand and South Africa run on. This is a big game. Right from the start, the Kiwi players feel the pressure of playing in front of their home crowd; they are nervous and rush the moves they performed perfectly against poor old Wales. South Africa breaks away and scores. The atmosphere drops out of the stadium, as though the floor’s been removed.

It fills up again, even louder than before. Every time New Zealand attacks there is a great whistling roar, like a steam train approaching the end of the line at 200 kays. Never mind all that nonsense I’ve heard about not caring about the result. This might be a fun couple of days in the sun, but when New Zealand plays rugby, it’s no joke.

They equalise, and the place explodes. “Eric!” cries a woman from the stand, to veteran All Black and Sevens hero Eric Rush. “Eric, will you marry me?”

But South Africa is a good, disciplined team. They break away and score again. The noise dips and fills, and the applause for the South Africans is generous, considering. Then they score again. The Kiwis, team and crowd, seem desperate and resigned. Tiger-fast captain Karl Te Nana breaks through tackles, but into others. The whole team seems caught up.

The South Africans win it 20-10. The seven Kiwi players do a long lap of honour and are treated like they’ve won it anyway. When they’ve gone at least a third of the stadium has gone with them. It feels like a party with the alcohol suddenly confiscated.

But of course the rugby goes on, remorselessly. The Cook Islands plays Papua New Guinea, to universal indifference. Pop music blares again, at every opportunity, to try and rouse people from their sadness.

We head into evening, and the climax of the competition. The players run like maniacs under the floodlights, each with four shadows. The winners of the plate and the shield and the bowl step up on a dais to receive medals and a half-bottle of champagne. A Frenchman takes off his kit and throws it into the stand. Another streaker manages to cover three-quarters of the pitch before he’s brought down. As he’s led away a policeman arrives with a towel – but puts it on the guy’s head.

During the final between South Africa and Samoa, a player is injured scoring a try. He lies there unconscious or dead, accompanied by Van Morrison’s “Brown-Eyed Girl” at top volume. Some people are dancing, some aren’t. South Africa wins the match and the tournament. I don’t remember the score.

There are presentations, and the big Harleys do a lap of the pitch, carrying the beautiful girls in the short skirts, before roaring down the players’ tunnel into the night. In the closing ceremony there’s a Chinese dragon and more girls in short skirts carrying flags. Then they’re gone too, along with all the drunk people in wigs, who are going into Wellington to get even more drunk. I look up at the empty stands and realise I’ve been sober far too long.

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