THREE WEEKS IN RUGBY HEAVEN

Down Under at its fun-filled best

by Richard Freeman

Australia has never really needed any ploys to lure travelers to this vast country. The natural beauty of the rain forests in the north, deserts in the dry interior and mountains in the south, all surrounded by some of the greatest beaches in the world, are more than enough reasons to take a trip Down Under.

But throw in the third-biggest sporting event in the world behind the Olympics and the soccer World Cup, and since Oct. 10 the country has transformed itself into one huge party that will last until the final on Nov. 22.

The International Rugby Board’s decision to hold the 2003 Rugby World Cup in Australia seems like a heaven-sent idea — but things could have been very different. The original idea was for Australia and New Zealand to co-host the tournament, but politics killed off that plan and the Kiwis’ loss was their neighbor’s gain.

The 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney are widely regarded as being the greatest sporting event ever held, and the local organizers used that as their model for the 2003 RWC — and then gave it some.

Rather than just basing the tournament in one city the organizers have taken it to some of the most extreme places in this huge land — and the result has been a riotous success.

One only had to be in cities such as Townsville or Wollongong (which both hosted cultural festivals to coincide with the tournament) to experience the partylike atmosphere that has swept the nation, while Sydney is simply awash with visitors roaming the streets in the colors and shirts of their true or adopted nations.

With rugby union having a claim to be Australia’s third, or at best second most popular sport (behind Australian rules football and rugby league), there was always a possibility that the tournament might have been a flop, especially in the areas where the 15-man code was not played regularly. But the local and state governments came up with some novel ways to promote the tournament and the sport.

Kangaroo Island in South Australia has been renamed Wallaby Island (the Australian team’s nickname) for the duration of the tournament, and such were the crowds at the two games at the picturesque Adelaide Oval that the city has been promised a rugby international match in the very near future.

However, even that was outdone by the city council in Launceston (the capital of Tasmania). The city had been picked to host a game between two of the tournament underdogs — Namibia and Romania — and came up with a novel way of promoting the game. Those born on an even day were asked to support Namibia and those born on an odd day to support Romania. The result? More than 15,000 turned up to cheer on their adopted teams, and links between the southernmost part of Australia and southwest Africa and Eastern Europe have been assured for many years to come.

And it’s not just about friendships that have been made. The government of New South Wales has said the tournament will bring in 350 million Australian dollars ($247 million) in revenue to the state and lead to the creation of 2,500 full-time jobs.

One city that will no longer need an introduction to the huge numbers of Japanese that visited it is Townsville — the capital of North Queensland. With the Cherry Blossoms (the Japanese national team) setting up camp in the city for three weeks, Townsville transformed itself into a mini-Japan.

“There were more Japanese flags here than I have ever seen in Tokyo,” said Japan captain Takuro Miuchi after his team’s heroic performance against France (Japan lost 29-51).

Rugby shirts and fancy dress costumes were the order of the day — though two visiting fans took that to extremes by wearing Santa Claus outfits in the stifling spring heat. The costumes were the only thing they could find in red and white, the colors of the Japan team.

Haruki Nihori, marketing development manager for Tourism Queensland in Tokyo, told the Townsville Bulletin that he expected the city to reap tourism rewards as a result of the welcome given to the team and the fans.

“It is an emerging market in Japan,” Nihori said. “Magnetic Island and city attractions such as Reef HQ are suited for the international market.”

One big difference between the soccer World Cup and the Rugby World Cup is the demographic of the traveling fans. While the round-ball version generally attracts a large number of men aged 18-40, the oval-ball game seems to attract far more families and, dare I say it, more older married sorts. Whereas the only businesses to do really well during the 2002 soccer World Cup were the bars and fast-food joints it seemed that in Australia people had a wee bit more money to throw around and were taking in sight-seeing trips while their chosen team was not playing.

It was not uncommon to see rugby shirts approaching while on a quiet beach on Magnetic Island or feeding the kangaroos at the Billabong Animal Sanctuary. And true to the nature of the sport, and indeed the country we were in, a friendly “g’day” and chat was sure to follow.

Good-natured banter and friendships made over a “cold tinny or two” were evident wherever you went. From the huge numbers of locals in Gosford sporting rising suns to show their support for the Japanese players, to the haka and singing performed by the rival New Zealand and Welsh fans as we traveled by ferry under the Harbor Bridge to Olympic Park, the Rugby World Cup was the stuff dreams are made of.

That’s hardly surprising, though, when you think that we were all there in the land of “dream time” watching “the game played in heaven.”