The Canterbury Crusaders, the table-topping and two-time defending Super Rugby champions, played eighth-placed and 2015 Super Rugby champions Otago Highlanders in Christchurch, where the home side hadn’t lost a game since last year.
Are you a sport fan or a sports fan? Here is the test: Would you, for example, spend the day at the beach watching Australia’s best surf rowers, before hitting the showers and heading to watch an A-League match that night.
Then back up early the next day to watch some of the world’s best skateboarders in the Australian Bowl-Riding Championships?
Pick another trifecta. Surfing, Super Rugby and the Indigenous Goannas playing the Newcastle Knights, perhaps? If that sounds like your perfect weekend, get the GPS out and tune it towards the centre of Newcastle.
Sport fans have long been well catered for in the Hunter region.
If league or football was your game and you didn’t mind the Spartan surrounds of the old International Marathon Stadium – now the Hunter Stadium, you could see some top-shelf contests in your game. Similarly, a cricket nut of a certain vintage saw everyone from Imran Khan to Greg Matthews front up to No. 1 Sportsground.
But a new golden era has dawned in the Hunter for true sports fans. A somewhat unholy alliance of sports administrators, governments of various levels, tourism bodies and businesses are turning the Hunter into a serious sports event destination.
Because we all know there are sport fans and then there are sports fans.
The two words are often interchangeable but not all sport fans are sports fans.
Sport fans are those who know and love a sport. If cricket is their game, they can tell you straight up how many Test runs Allan Border scored. (It is 11,174 for those playing at home).
If it’s football, they can tell you at length about the goalkeeper who scored for the Socceroos against the Solomon Islands in 1997. (Mark Bosnich, 90th-minute penalty, final score 13-0).
If rugby league is his or her sporting obsession, they can tell you how old John Raper was when he quit the big time to coach North Newcastle* (30).
They love their sport – passionately. But a sport fan can often be found arguing against the merits of another sport or be genuinely bewildered how someone could love equestrian.
A sports fan is something quite different. A sports fan is genuinely conflicted when, on one TV channel, the tennis career of Canadian bombshell Eugenie Bouchard is blossoming on centre court, while on another channel, Alistair Cook is finally middling the occasional cut after his colonial calamity of a summer.
A sports fan is one who will nick down to the local park to watch how the under-14 cricket is getting along while listening to radio coverage of the women’s Ashes on his mobile phone app.
A sports fan loves a contest preferably, but not necessarily, played at the highest level, and appreciates the full buffet of sporting delights.
And while Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane are often viewed as the nation’s key sport destinations, Sydney’s northern neighbour – coastal and quirky Newcastle – is quietly packaging up the best of a truly staggering soiree of sporting delights.
The place was pumping with international colour at the recent Special Olympics 2013 Asia Pacific Games, the 2014 Kellogg’s Nutri-Grain Ironman Series have returned with gusto and thousands turned out just to turn on the countdown clock for AFC Asian Cup Australia 2015.
Yep, humble “Newy” is host city for Asia’s biggest sports event.
But February and March of this year have been dubbed the region’s Sports Frenzy – with a swag of events taking place over the course of six weeks starting February 1, which will see the Hunter attract some of the world’s best surfers for Surfest, host a stack of A-League football, stage the Navy Australian Surf Rowers Open, the Australian Bowl-Riding Championships, the Festival of Indigenous Rugby League and even a spot of Super Rugby – all as part of the IT’s ON! Newcastle and The Hunter campaign.
And all of this without Sydney’s traffic choked streets or Melbourne’s hotel prices. Now, who could disagree with that?
World-class athletes in at least five sports will be going at it less than four hour’s drive from most major cities and towns in NSW, less than two from much of Sydney. And it is all happening in a town that made Lonely Planet’s Top Ten Cities of 2011 for its “surf beaches, a sun-drenched subtropical climate, and diverse dining, nightlife and arts.”
So while sport fans may be spending February in Cape Town or Sochi many sports fans will be setting the GPS for Memorial Drive, Bar Beach. If you do, you will find some seriously hot world class athletes and a storm of sports fun in a fantastic sports festival frenzy.
Be warned, though. The locals don’t really do “frenzy”. They will just be happy to have a quiet yarn about the footy… or the football… or the rugby… or the surfing… or the skateboarding… or the Special Olympics… or the Asian Cup.
The place is well known for its sport fans, but you’ll find it is choc-full of sports fans.
*If you spotted this mistake, congratulations. You are a true sport fan. Raper took on the job at Newcastle Wests, not North Newcastle. Now go broaden your sporting horizons and head to the Hunter in February or March.
Aaron Kearney is a Sports Commentator and host for ABC Radio and Television and a Newcastle resident. Twitter: @aaronkearneyaus, If you want to find out more about the month of sport in Newcastle, click here.