Just moments before the FMG Stadium Waikato gates opened for the day, the clouds cleared and the sun shone down on Hamilton’s first All Blacks match in three years.
The city’s stadium hosted a pre-Rugby World Cup match for the reigning world champion All Blacks, against Pacific rivals Tonga – a rare afternoon game in the modern professional rugby era.
A crowd of 23,443 people filled the venue for the event, which started with the festival curtain-raiser between the Pacific Legends and the New Zealand Barbarians Legends – two teams of largely former rugby players, plus a few ex-league professionals. The match was to raise awareness of the MaiBody, MaiFuture health initiative for Maaori and Polynesian communities.
The game featured rolling subs, “golden oldies” style scrums – and a few loose passes and missed tackles. The New Zealand Barbarians Legends claimed the win 33 to 31, with former All Blacks Sevens flier Tomasi Cama missing a last-minute conversation which would have tied the match.
Among the crowd for the day were proud Tongan fans Taulanga Lomu and Talita Lomu – relatives of the late All Blacks icon Jonah. Mr Lomu also had relatives from his home island of Vava’u turning out for his Tonga in the main match.
The couple had travelled from Weymouth, South Auckland, for the game – with Mr Lomu working a 12-hour night shift before heading straight to Hamilton with his wife for the match.
The couple – watching from a spot just below the stadium’s famous Whatanoa Gate – had bought match tickets as soon as they went on sale, expecting “absolutely the best game”.
“Rugby union in Tonga – that’s really our national game,” Mr Lomu told ourhamilton.co.nz
“I’ve got no doubt we’ll have some success in our Rugby World Cup 2019 pool.”
In the Test itself, the near full-strength All Blacks proved too strong for Tonga, romping to a big victory, with the final score 92 to 7 – with the visitors nabbing their only try of the game in the dying minutes.
Hamilton City Council’s Major Events Director Chad Hooker said the city and the Council welcomed the opportunity to host the All Blacks’ farewell test.
“It’s been a great day – the fans supporting both teams have turned out in great numbers for today’s match, bringing their passion and energy to our venue,” Mr Hooker said.
“Hosting an All Blacks Test is always a special occasion and I think we’ve really turned it on for the teams and the supporters over the week, and today.”
The Tonga rugby league team plays the Great Britain Lions on 26 October at FMG Stadium Waikato.