The 2019 Super Rugby season is barely over a month away and excitement is reaching fever pitch.
Anyone can contribute to The Roar and have their work featured alongside some of Australia’s most prominent sports journalists.
One thing I’ve loved about working behind the scenes in the Rebel Army, and seeing this ragtag organisation thrive, is the relationships that have sprung up between Rebels supporters and our players.
Not a day has passed where I haven’t seen conversations on social media between players and punters, on topics ranging from the previous week’s game, and advice for budding players, to personal lives, families, even proper Twitter hashtag etiquette.
Originally, I, somewhat lazily, put this down to a fluke that we managed to sign 30-odd really nice, computer-literate guys. Then, as the highs and lows of our first season eventuated, it occurred to me that there was something more.
These blokes had taken a punt on us, just like we had taken a punt on them. When they came down to Melbourne, expecting who knows what, and found a bunch of nutbags willing to adopt them, and support them no matter the result, their response went beyond the traditional sporting team niceties of inserting the term ‘great supporters’ in press releases.
We were mates.
There’s nothing better than having your mates fulfill their dreams. Actually, I lie, there’s one thing better. Being there to see it when they do. Which brings me to our story.
A week before we left for Auckland, the plan was hatched. A few Rebel Army members had been planning to include the Cold War battle between Russia and the USA in their itinerary long before the Cup, and Army co-founder Gav Norman and I had planned to arrive in Auckland on that Thursday, to see the Wallabies game on the Saturday, and Wales v Samoa on Sunday.
Then Adam Byrnes got picked in the Russian Rugby World Cup squad, and was a significant chance of getting a jersey in the first game.
Talking to Al about his trip so far, we decided that the Army needed a presence, if at all possible, for such a significant event. We weren’t able to change our flights into NZ, so we did the math.
If everything…everything…came off without a hitch, we would arrive at Stadium Taranaki at precisely 7.30, as soon as ball touched boot.
30 minutes, and a fair deal of cursing at Air New Zealand’s price gouging, later, and a Rebel Army unit was confirmed for Russia’s, and hopefully Adam’s, first game.
Thursday came, and we boarded our Virgin flight to Auckland. Just. For little did we know, there was a trial of the new full body scanner technology at Customs, which promised faster, safer clearance.
Suffice to say, it didn’t, and we were left in a mad, Amazing Race-style dash to the gate to catch our now-closing flight.
A slight delay. Nothing that couldn’t be made up over the flight, but still not ideal. We arrived into Auckland at 4pm, late but not by much. We still had a chance.
We needed to check in to our Auckland apartment before we left for New Plymouth, which meant we needed to leave the airport, praying for two good runs of traffic before our Air New Zealand flight departed at 6.30. Doable.
Two highly convoluted trips through the back streets of Manukau later, and we were back at the airport at 6.15pm. We had surely succeeded.
High fives were exchanged, and passers-by were no doubt confused as to why two people, one dressed in Melbourne Rebels gear, the other dressed in an almost offensively stereotypical Russian manner, were so happy to be in the domestic departures lounge. But then we saw it.
Words were said, none of which need be repeated. The delay was only 15 minutes, but in our risk-filled itinerary, that was enough to bring everything undone.
We eventually boarded a plane that could only be described as a Wright Brothers Original, and were helpfully informed that our headrests will act as flotation devices when (not if) required. Matters of life and death, however, would be put to one side. We needed time.
We landed at New Plymouth airport at 7.20. Bolting out of the plane, we had an airport transfer waiting to take us to the stadium. The one thing on our side was the roads in New Plymouth.
God bless their country town hearts, there only seemed to be one major road. 15 minutes of driving in a straight line, and we were on the outskirts of the stadium, at the start of the road closures.
Channelling our Amazing Race skills learnt at the start of the day, we ran up an unnecessarily large hill into the stadium.
The time when we sat down with the others was 7.45. We had missed kick off, and Russia’s first penalty goal.
But we hadn’t missed Adam. The high fives exchanged at this point in time were well earned.
The first half passed without incident. The USA were leading a scrappy game, but the Russians had shown enough to suggest they weren’t to be written off. They changed ends, and the game continued.
Russia were running towards our end in this half, and that meant the bench players would warm up at the same end. When we saw them coming our way, all four of us ran to the sideline, tripping over the odd dancing drunk/child, and went nuts.
The look on Adam’s face was a mixture of gratitude and humility, with a sprinkle of that feeling you got when you were a kid and your parents embarrassed you in front of all your new friends. We had done our job.
50 minutes in, Adam, and us as well, had our reward. 19 Red ran on to a Rugby World Cup field for the first time. Adam Byrnes was a capped international.
For a minute, we had a good part of a bay chanting ‘Adam!’ It could be argued that some were doing so due to the oddity of a player in the Russian team having the name Adam, but that’s neither here nor there.
For the record, he played really well, and more than put his hand up for a starting position in future games.
On the six hour bus ride (yes, six) back to Auckland, I thought of my favourite moments in rugby over this year. The Brumbies game, yes. The ‘Rebels’ chant after the Sharks game, sure. Radike Samo’s hair, of course. Being totally best friends with Gareth Delve, you bet. Becoming Tri Nations Champions forever, absolutely.
But being there to see a mate achieve his dreams…you can’t beat that.