Rugby league in New Zealand hides amongst the crushing influence of rugby union, it’s much better supported cousin. But if you take time to look, league sprouts up and shakes you by the hand.
I couldn’t find a taxi. There I was, in the middle of Auckland’s busiest street in the middle of the CBD – Queen Street – but not a cab in sight. Except one bloke. He was driving a beaten up old Mazda. The passenger door had a dent. Not good.
The cabbie kept doing slow U-turns, giving the not-so-subtle impression he was available. I waved him down and got in.
Daimun was from Malaysia and had lived in Auckland for eight years. His English was fairly broken but he could get a point across. I asked him to take me to St Lukes, a big shopping mall, and we got there within 20 minutes. It was then that he professed his love for rugby league.
It was like receiving a hot chocolate from a friend. Really? Rugby league? He loved the sport. Daimun also loved Test rugby league. I felt like I was having an outer-body experience. I picked the one taxi driver who loved the topic of the book I was spruiking that week in Auckland.
This is where rugby league surprises you in New Zealand. Before you’ve left Auckland International Airport, the All Black back-three of Israel Dagg, Nehe Milner-Skudder and Ben Smith have invited you to try a range of banking and retail products.
Over breakfast at a café in the morning, patrons inevitably started talking about rugby.
Rugby league is a niche player here. But it does ‘niche’ well.
Take the New Zealand Rugby League headquarters, for example. It’s outwardly a little building, but right from the moment you enter, you’re hit with Rugby League World Cup promos, Four Nations 2014 celebration photos and Kiwi jerseys.
— NZ Rugby League (@NZRL_Kiwis) November 9, 2016
Brooke and Craig, the organisation’s enthusiastic communications team, proudly showed me the magnificent rugby league museum – a shrine for New Zealand rugby league history. Jerseys and photos across more than 100 years hang proudly across the display. It was lovingly crafted.
Roy Christian, one of the great Kiwi captains, came along to my book launch later that night. Chris Rattue, a veteran sports writer for the New Zealand Herald, was visibly humbled to meet such a legendary figure too. It’s these touching moments that make you realise how good rugby league can be for those who love it.
People like Sir Peter Leitch keep it in the hearts and minds of the general public through promotion of the sport. I just wonder who the new generation will be to assume this mantle. League needs its crusaders, particularly when they are in direct competition with union in this country.
Public interest in rugby league wasn’t terribly high in the week I spent in Auckland. Team New Zealand had won the America’s Cup, and the All Blacks were preparing to face the British and Irish Lions. That gobbled up most of the media interest.
But come Rugby League World Cup time, I sense the sizeable group of die-hard league supporters will come out of the woodwork. It will be their time.
*Get Andrew Marmont’s book Their Finest Hour, a history of the Rugby League World Cup in 10 matches, at all good bookstores or through Harper Collins.