OPINION: Believe me, that's not an easy headline for a born and bred Cantabrian to write. And neither is this (clears throat).
Hats off to you, Auckland Rugby. On the field and off it, the provincial union absolutely nailed its approach to the Mitre 10 Cup Premiership final.
- Auckland beat Canterbury in thrilling premiership final
- Mitre 10 Cup premiership final - Auckland vs Canterbury
This was an opportunity to engage a fan base. With the early promise of free entry, pre-match and half-time entertainment, punters on the field with the players after the game, and a chance to stay and watch the All Blacks on the big screen, Auckland Rugby got it spot-on. The weather might've ruined the plans, but not the party.
This was an investment in the future: using the showpiece game of the season to make memories, rather than money.
The 20,000-plus that showed up were spoiled with a modern classic. They produced an atmosphere to match the game they watched. As Ian Smith mentioned in the closing moments of extra time, it sounded like 60,000 cheering the home side to victory.
What a game. What an occasion. Auckland versus Canterbury, north versus south, the sort of ding-dong battle that fuelled a rivalry for years before professionalism ruined it. This was the sort of performance Auckland Rugby used to pride itself on.
And the pride's still there. From the players, and the fans. This game, this result, really seemed to matter. It showed in the celebrations. TJ Faiane's post-match speech was spontaneous, and from the heart. The whole occasion harked back to the good old days and what made provincial rugby great. There was something genuine about it, something real. Something franchise rugby can only dream of.
Experts have slammed the national provincial competition in recent years: its poor crowds, its lack of top talent, its inferior standard. Well, yesterday proved them all wrong. An outstanding game of rugby, a healthy crowd, and not a first-string All Black in sight. Did it matter? Not one bit. Some of those fans who turned up for free finally got their money back after years of paying through the nose to watch those hapless Blues.
Sir John Kirwan had it right this week, and those in power would do well to listen to his bold plan for rugby. Tribalism is everything in sport. It's authentic. Why do you think schoolboy rugby has such a strong following? Because people are invested. It's family. It's friends. It's rivalry. It's what dad did. What dad's dad did. So it is with provincial rugby.
Rugby fans will support a Super Rugby franchise because it's the premier product, with the best players. It's the competition we've been trained and told to watch. But those franchises will never have the history and the deep connection that those fans feel with their provincial unions. Everyone's proud of where they come from. Everyone.
There was no better example of this than Eden Park on Saturday afternoon. Thousands of new fans, many of them youngsters, heading along for what may have been their first taste of provincial rugby. You couldn't ask for a better introduction to the game, and you can't put a price on the impact the experience of watching that game, and being part of that crowd, will have on those young fans.
As much as Auckland Rugby deserves a massive amount of credit for producing a remarkable on-field turnaround to claim their first national title in 11 years, they deserve even more kudos for showing the rest of the country what provincial rugby can be.
Aucklanders will hope Saturday afternoon can be a watershed moment for the province. The rest of us can only hope the game's administrators were watching and wondering whether the game needs to go backwards, in order to move forward.
Andrew Gourdie is a sports presenter for Newshub.