“sevens heaven:” when the city comes out to play.

“With over 140,000 players, in men’s and women’s rugby throughout the country, rugby is New Zealand’s leading spectator sport and ranks as one of our leading participant sports. Each year, more written words are generated on the subject of rugby than on any other single sport. It is probably the most generally discussed subject in the country and the number one media sports topic. Provincial and national representative teams are the subjects of intense public interest and support. Leading players are popular heroes. Rugby even has its own national museum, where its artifacts and historical archives are preserved and displayed. Rugby enjoys huge status in the national psyche.” – Alan Turley, Rugby: The Pioneer Years

Photo courtesy of Liz Proctor, reporter for NewsWire.

In all its harborside glory, Wellington can often come across as a calm, undisturbed sort of place, the country’s center of politics and culture, to be sure, but without the usual accouterments of a big city – no seedy, steaming underground, no crowds to battle on litter-lined sidewalks, and no major thoroughfares across which to walk by foot would be to place one’s life in danger. It is, shall we say, tame. Visitors from such bustling metropolitan centers as Auckland often remark, “Is it always this quiet? Where are the crowds?”

That was the case, however, until the weekend of the Rugby International Sevens tournament. As if an ancient oracle had been decreed, as if a town crier had raised his fluted trumpet to the skies, the citizens of Wellington heard his cry and answered. Over 100,000 were reputed to be descending upon the city over the course of the weekend, with Westpac Stadium alone holding some 34,500 souls. Like winning the lottery or reeling in your line on a deep-sea fishing trip, I knew it would be big. The only question that remained was how big.

As I walked through town Thursday afternoon, I was surprised to find Willis Street in such a hubbub of commotion. Both sides of the street were packed and trucks plastered with sponsors’ logos pulled trailers down the center of the road. It took me two seconds of seeing a white sign on a truck that read Papau New Guinea and a truckbed-full of stocky men with large shoulders to realize I’d made it just in time for the Sevens parade. I suddenly remembered reading about it on the tournament website, yet lamenting at the time that I’d be stuck at work in the restaurant. And now here I was, under the blessed sunshine, joining the crowds to cheer on the teams. How cool is life sometimes? My only regret was leaving my camera at home…but how was I to know?

The parade was all smiles, and mine rivaled the size of the Fijians shouting “Bula!” tossing lollies to the crowds. I watched as Samoa, Scotland, and South Africa passed by. Samoa, dancing under the sun to what I feared was stereotypical tropical music but light-hearted nonetheless. Scotland, the truck preceded by kilt-wearing bag pipe players, and the players standing much more reserved than their Pacific predecessors. South Africa, several men with hand drums and colorful shirts and conga beats. (The South Africans were, incidentally, the most attractive men I had ever laid eyes on and were wearing rugby shirts to boot.)

And as those three teams paraded alphabetically before me, I thought again, how cool is the world we live in? In all the talk of globalization and multiculturalism and border-crossing, I find comfort in every so often thinking of countries as specific entities again, of the fact that no matter how similar some may be to each other, there are over 200 countries with their own cultures, languages, and ways of doing life. And even if bagpipes and bongos are countrified clichés, don’t they say all stereotypes come from somewhere? Of course, I was informed later that half of Samoa’s team members are from New Zealand, which sort of cancels out my nationalistic nostalgia, but perhaps it’s still worth a thought.

While a faint feeling of patriotism rose in me at the sight of the US flag, the team waved nondescriptly from their truckbed, wearing tacky blue and white Hawaiian shirts. Oh, America. New Zealand’s team was last and I found myself cheering just as loudly as the Kiwis next to me, motioning to one of the members to throw me a string of beads he wore around his neck. It’s just that home team appeal, I suppose. I also wasn’t exactly trusting of the American team. What were they up to, anyway? We’d stopped using pigskin for rugby balls and turned to gridiron football a hundred years ago, yet here they were ready to take on the best the rugbeian world had to offer. I was critical, but pleased anyways when they won the Shield final two days later.

The referees were also represented in the parade. They rode in golf carts and sported polos of the colors of the tournament, navy blue and orange, and a man with a microphone yelled out the countries from which the refs had come. There was also a float for “Fans,” featuring a bloated paper-mâché Air New Zealand airplane with stewardesses walking the street who looked like they were straight from the Sixties.

In all, there were sixteen countries represented in Wellington that weekend. The British contingent consisted of England, Wales and Scotland. Canada and the US stood strong for North America, while France stood alone for Europe and Argentina somehow found its way from South America to the Pacific. Australia, New Zealand and South Africa represented what I myself refer to the Big Three in international rugby and the rest of the tournament was filled in by an impressive turnout from the Pacific Islands: Samoa, Fiji, Nuie, Samoa, Papau New Guinea, and the Solomon Islands.

*     *     *

I woke up Friday morning of the tournament with one thought on my mind: let the games begin. It’s one thing when you spend weeks mulling over a decision and ultimately choose to forego work or financial security for a certain opportunity. It’s another thing when said opportunity presents itself and you step out the front door with both excitement and a little nervous curiosity – will, or will it not, be worth it?

And I indeed had my doubts that morning as I checked in at Westpac Stadium. I gave the woman my name, she flipped through sheets and sheets of temps, and finally grunted, “Corporate boxes…spare.” I found myself saying desperately, “I think there must be some mistake,” as if I’d been handed an exam with failing marks or told to try again next year. Once inside the stadium, sporting the ever-attractive uniform of button-down shirt and apron we temps are often delegated to, I approached Vinny, a man I was told was the manager. “Listen, Vinny, I quit another job for this role. I will be working today.” I actually felt a little manipulative, a little vindictive, but also extremely helpless as I looked around the room filled with scores of temps. Finally, two representatives from my temp agency walked in the door and I sighed with relief like you might when your lawyers arrive on the scene of a police station interrogation.

In the end, there was no need to stress. “No dramas,” as the Aussies might say. I was sent upstairs to Box 24 to wait with the rest of the corporate box temps until we were briefed for the day. A woman named Victoria, the stadium’s hospitality manager, eventually emerged from the room and within five seconds, I could tell she meant business. “This is our biggest event of the year and I won’t have you screwing it up,” was essentially what she said. “It’s a long, exhausting day and if your feet hurt, I don’t want to hear about it. Everyone’s feet hurt. You get one half hour break and that starts the second you leave your box’s door. If you take any longer, it will be deducted from your pay.” Right.

She then began the process of checking us in for the 23rd time of the day. First it was security, then it was our uniforms and bags, finally we were getting our assignments for the day. When it came to me, I was told to take a seat and wait… a response I always love to hear. A man named James whom I later learned was Victoria’s sidekick leaned over and said, “Don’t worry, you’ve got the best job.” Which, as grateful as I was for the reassurance, is a statement you never can fully trust – what if they’re just saying that to make you feel better? “Don’t worry, Johnny, the kids will be jealous of your new haircut…”

After the last temp had been checked in and sent off to their appropriate assignment, only a few others and myself remained. I was then told I’d be a “floater,” and was placed with a certain supervisor, Doug, in boxes 1-10. When I at last tracked Doug down, a middle-aged man in a tie who turned out to be Victoria’s father, he was talking to another girl in Box 8. He stared hard at my nametag and said tentatively, “Candy…?” I placed two fingers on the tag in attempt to emphasize the name it read. “Candace,” I said firmly. He and the other temp, Melissa, had been discussing how to deal with the patrons of this particular box and who should cover for her on her break. Apparently – as one could easily tell from the Jagermeister dispensing machine that sat on the counter – this group tended to get a little out of control. “We need someone who can hold their own,” Melissa said, looking at Doug as if I wasn’t in the room. But I had come to understand that my chief role as floater was to do just that – fill in for other hosts on their breaks – and thus offered to do so. “Have you done this before?” she asked, her tone a little too accusatory for my taste. I told her no, and she said she wouldn’t bother with a break. So be it.

And so it wasn’t the best start to the day. With my supervisor apparently doubting my abilities, giving me nicknames I hate, and dobbing off useless tasks to me, I felt helpless, yet again. One of the things that’s perhaps most frustrating about a temp job is not knowing your place. There’s something about walking into a job you’ve been at for months and knowing right where you set your bag, right where to get a cup of coffee, right where to get your day started. There’s something about expectations. With temp work, though, it’s all up in the air. I was told by Doug to “just follow me around,” and as the distance between our section of boxes was quite a ways from the kitchen, I was sent on little missions to retrieve such crucial items as, say, a missing carving knife for Box 2 or three extra dinner plates for Box 7. Very Important Matters, of course.

But when I wasn’t sprinting down the hall – apparently the entire ring around the stadium measures some 1.2 kilometers, so please don’t think I’m exaggerating here – I was doing just as Doug requested, staying a foot behind him like a little puppy dog desperate for his master’s approval. It wasn’t like I did anything, of course, as I had no idea what anyone was talking about, but I reached back into my months as a personal assistant in London and did what I often did best then – I listened. My memory is a freak of nature and the details I can keep track of scare me sometimes. So as Doug learned of mini-crisis after mini-crisis, I kept track of which boxes were having lunch service, which ones were having ham carveries, which ones needed the fridge cleaned. Then – and this is how I earned his respect – I was his memory. He’d go to do something, obviously having forgotten what it was he needed to do, and I’d step in – “Carving station in Box 4.” “Oh, right,” he’d say and keep walking.

I did this several times within our first hour together until at one moment, he finally stopped in his tracks, turned around and stared me in the eye: “Are you a student?” “No.” His gaze intensified. “Then what do you do?” I laughed to myself and said, “Oh, anything and everything, really.” What I should’ve said was part-time CIA agent, part-time investigative journalist, of course, but there was no need to scare the guy, now was there? But at that point, I was Candy no more. I was Candace, his trusted second-at-command, his go-to girl, his right-hand (wo)man. I even – and this is where it gets good – got to hold his clipboard. “You love that thing, don’t you?” he asked. You have no idea, I wanted to say.

Doug and I turned out to be quite the team. He liked having an attentive young woman at his side, often bragging about me to the boxes – “Alright, gentlemen, who would rather have in here while Stacey goes on her break…me or her? [Pause] Ha, ha, yeah, that’s what I thought” – and I liked feeling one step higher on the delegation ladder. He’d send me on Very Important Missions – “Now I need you to go to every box and make sure they all have the correct number of plates” – and I’d wag off and complete them. He even let everyone go that night and kept me on two hours longer to help him restock all the fridges. When I checked back in Saturday morning, I was told to wait again, as Victoria thought she might need to use me elsewhere. In the end, though, she sent me back to Doug and when I walked into the room where he was briefing the hosts for the day, he looked up and said, “What are you doing here?” “I’m with you!” I said in that breathless sort of way every man wants to hear. “Boy am I glad you’re here,” he told me once the meeting was over. And so we were back in action.

So James was right at all. I did have the better job. While the box hosts were stressing over drink stocktakes and meal arrangements and keeping their corporate members at an acceptable level of intoxication, I was free to float as I pleased. Doug told me if I knew anyone in other boxes, I was welcome to wander off and say hi to them. Rather than make me out to be the loser that I am and say, “Oh, I don’t think there’ll be any chance of that,” I thanked him for the freedom and said I would. What I was more interested in, however, was the scene below the corporate boxes – the stands.

For while the boxes hosted the country’s “elite,” the real fun of the stadium was four floors down on the general concourse where the other 30,000 lesser privileged were flooding in, in full-attire. I’ve yet to mention it at this point, but the rugby is only half of the allure of the Sevens. The other half is, well, to party. To dress up, booze up, and generally have a fantastic time with your friends. But by dress up, I don’t mean donning suits and ties and pearls, I mean fancy dress…Halloween-style.

As I followed the crowd, watching from either above or on the TVs in the boxes, I kept track of the crazy costumes and wacky wigs. There was, of course, your usual gamut of disguises – cowboys and Indians,  policemen, construction workers, and anything jungle-themed involving animal prints. There were the mullets so familiar from university, pirates, maids, and very manly Marilyn Monroe’s. Others weren’t quite so overdone – Yoda, Alice in Wonderland, Wonder Woman, and the Mario Brothers, fake black mustaches and all, to name a few. But beyond the Borats and the ballerinas, what I appreciated was the creativity that went into some of the costumes, the width and breadth of the imagination at work here. There was a man wearing a banana suit who came with his friends, a corn cob and a pea pod, and there were M&Ms, Chupa Chupa lollipops and a whole slew of Oompa Loompas, complete with orange skin and neon green hair.

But what I most loved about the carnivalesque atmosphere of the Sevens was the fact that you didn’t go alone. You went with friends and it was very important that your costume was part of an overall coordinated group effort. It seemed almost a capital offense to wear something that didn’t tie in with that worn by at least five other people. This went one of two ways. The first was complete uniformity – there is nothing funnier than seeing eight Buzz Lightyears or Captain Planets walk by or a whole group of Crayola Crayons with pointed colored hats on and their dresses printed like the label on a crayon. Nothing will catch your eye more than nine Sonic the Hedgehogs or twelve Thomas the Tank Engines. But the group dynamic of the tournament also meant that you could take creativity to the next level and design some pretty brilliant themes.

There was the Tetris theme, in which each member wore a different colored cardboard creation in the shape of different Tetris blocks. Another group kept with the arcade theme and went as the four ghosts of Pac-Man – Blinky, Pinky, Inky and Clyde. Pac-Man himself was nowhere to be seen, I was disappointed to find. Perhaps the most original was a group who had managed to find the costumes to go as a sandwich – they wore massive plastic creations that had a hole for their head and I imagine were quite bulky to wear. Two were slices of bread, others were a tomato, lettuce, bacon and egg. The most clever, however, were undoubtedly two men in one of the boxes in my section. While everyone else in their box wore leis and shirts printed with tropical flowers, they had on khaki jump suits to which the Japanese flag had been pinned and they wore white bands tied around their head, with Japanese characters written on either side of a red sun. “Kamikaze pilots?” I asked. “Yeah, the theme’s Hawaii.” Touché, touché. I didn’t tell them I was American, but I tipped my hat to them nonetheless.

Photo courtesy of Liz Proctor, reporter for NewsWire.

One group wore black-and-neon checkered shirts that read “Kings of Neon,” with big crowns that had been made from orange balloons. Six Dorothy’s, stuck in Oz, no doubt, each carried a basket with a different breed of a stuffed animal dog in it. Palestinians wore headscarves and long white robes, not the best choice for the heat, I imagined, but at least they were authentic. There were brides and burglars, NASA astronauts and Buzzy Bees. There were women wearing aprons that read “The Home Wreckers,” carrying tools in their apron pockets. There were nuns and priests, who wore necklaces from which hung large gold crosses. There was even an air of nationalist pride, with many of the groups representing the Pacific Islands foregoing more innovative designs for simply wrapping their national flag around their shoulders. Or, like a group of Scots, had their faces painted blue with a white cross like the Scottish flag.

The only issue in this lesson on group Halloween was not being able to take the party-goers seriously. I’ve mentioned the reputation of drinking associated with this event, and as I moved throughout the day in my employment-enforced sobriety, I couldn’t help but laugh at the situations everyone else got themselves into. As American frat parties often give evidence to, dressing up and debauchery don’t always mix well. As I walked home Friday night, I looked through the windows of the train station and saw two girls wearing firemen hats and cardboard boxes that’d been decorated to resemble fire engines. They were sitting on a platform, looking rather dejected and lost, and the boxes-turned-engines looked like an insanely comical accessory, the straps that held them on having slipped off their shoulders. All I could do was laugh out loud, as I imagined the seven or eight other boxy firewomen they belonged with. “I want to feel sorry for you,” I thought, “But I simply can’t. You’re wearing a box that’s decorated like a fire truck.”

And so from the lofty heights of the corporate box, I took in the buzz that was the Wellington Sevens. I took in the crowds, a sea of sombreros and fluorescents and oddly-shaped outfits. There’s nothing quite like a roaring crowd, and I remembered walking to football games in university and how, if I was running late, the sound of the stadium erupting would hasten my steps. Something had happened, and I had missed it. Hence my immense satisfaction of not missing this, of not being stuck inside the four walls of a restaurant all weekend. I was here, if not quite in the thick of it, at least inside the stadium. A friend once told me, “The Sevens are a party, and when you’re bored you watch the rugby.” After the weekend was over, I passed shops selling t-shirts that read, “Wellington Sevens: There was rugby?” And it’s true, how easy it was to be distracted by the fancy dress and forget the game that brought everyone together in the first place.

Photo courtesy of Liz Proctor, reporter for NewsWire.

The longer I live abroad, the harder it is to separate what I’ve learned since traveling from the perceptions I held before. It’s something I think about often in regards to New Zealand, and the same goes for rugby. I’m sure I would’ve had to be aware of the sport, if only because a clothing store I worked for in high school sold striped “rugby” polo shirts, but I honestly can’t remember knowing any other details. I saw my first official rugby game in London, but it wasn’t until moving to New Zealand that I became aware of rugby culture as a whole. The All-Blacks, the country’s national rugby team, are somewhat of a national icon and the country follows them with the fervor of a religious fanatic. Again, with the Sevens tournament, my grasping the true importance of it was something that took time.

Thus I turned to history, as I so often do, in looking for understanding. In Rugby: The Pioneer Years, Alan Turley explains that seven-a-side rugby was first played in Scotland in 1883, invented by a butcher named Ned Haig as a fundraiser for the local rugby team. New Zealand was next, most likely picking up on the game from Scottish settlers who came to Dunedin. Wikipedia explains the game like this:

“Sevens is a stripped-down version of rugby union with seven players each side on a normal-sized field, rather than the normal fifteen. Games are much shorter, lasting only seven or ten minutes each half, and tend to be very fast-paced, open, affairs. Sevens is traditionally played in a two-day tournament format, with the Hong Kong Sevens (an anomaly as a three-day event) being the most famous. The game is quicker and higher-scoring than 15-a-side rugby and the rules are far simpler, which explains part of its appeal. It also gives players the space for superb feats of individual skill.”

This last fact was something even I picked up on, following the game as I could from my post in the corporate boxes. I watched with amazement at players breaking away, covering long distances across the field and rolling past the goal line to score a try (the equivalent to a North American touchdown). I was equally amazed by the crowds, at the thousands upon thousands of people who had done Lord-knows-what to secure their ticket. It was hard to believe the tournaments had come so far in only ten years, the first organized series of world sevens tournaments not taking place until the 1999-2000 season. As Wikipedia reports again, “The series was first formed to develop an elite-level competition series between rugby nations and develop the Sevens game into a viable commercial product for the [International Rugby Board].”

It had developed, all right. In Rugby: A Way of Life, an Illustrated History of Rugby, Nigel Starmer-Smith writes of the Hong Kong leg of the series:

This Seven-a-Side international tournament is without a doubt the most spectacular, exotic, best organized Rugby competition of its kind in the world, and it has consistently produced the highest standard of Sevens Rugby seen anywhere…The week of the Hong Kong tournament allows 24 Rugby-playing nations to intermingle for several days, and the huge cross-fertilisation of ideas can only be beneficial in the long term for the emerging nations. After the first day of the play when the top eight seeded teams meet the smaller fish in a pool system, the second day is divided into three different competitions… The strength of this great tournament is that on the opening day the most famous players in the world share a pitch with unknown opponents from countries where Rugby is a minority sport… While tournaments like the Hong Kong Sevens continue to be played, Rugby administrators can be confident that the game will continue to thrive in over 100 countries worldwide.

As I read Starmer-Smith’s words, I was pleased to hear the same streams of thought that passed through my mind while watching the parade days earlier. This was what the Sevens is all about, isn’t it? That “cross-fertilization” which breeds open minds, that intertwining of talent and varying levels of recognition which places everyone on a level playing field (pun fully intended, I assure you). I looked on Friday night as the Parade of Nations across the field took on an Olympic air, of sorts, a celebration of what makes us different and yet, what brings us together.

The tournaments now number eight a year, taking place in such locations as Dubai, South Africa, New Zealand, the US, Australia, Hong Kong, London and Edinburgh, Scotland. In fact, on October 9, 2009, at the 121st International Olympic Committee Session in Copenhagen, the IOC voted to recognize rugby sevens as an Olympic sport, a sport which will accordingly appear for the first time in the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. It was quite a moment for sevens fans across the world.

*     *     *

When the tournament ended Saturday night, the crowds didn’t disperse. They simply changed venues, going forth from the stadium into the streets, packing out bars that are normally dead by eleven. It dawned on me that perhaps hospitality managers in Wellington cling to the Sevens weekend as retailers in the States do to the day after Thanksgiving – after the lull of January, the weekend gives restaurants and bars a chance to get back on level financial ground and earn some serious cash. I passed bar after bar on the waterfront that were quite literally overflowing, ropes unable to hold back the masses. The city had come alive.

And as I walked along the water, I came across a Cookie Monster making out with a girl wearing a giant chocolate chip cookie suit. I laughed at first, of course, but seeing this perfect union of Cookie Monster and cookie, I thought of how well Wellington and the Sevens tournament took to each other. Like a hand in a glove or wind in the sail of a yacht, they just go together. There’s talk of moving the tournament to a different host city in the country, Auckland being the most obvious other choice, no doubt, but for now, I couldn’t imagine it anywhere else.

Even if I had been stuck in a corporate box all weekend, I for one was just glad to be a fly on the wall. All I needed were some wings.

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1 Comment

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One response to ““sevens heaven:” when the city comes out to play.

  1. This girl has real writing talent. I can see a Hemingwayesque type book from her in the future!

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