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Stadium stoush a battle of brawn
19 November 2006

Roll up, roll up for the battle of the boofheads. In one corner, the government's resident boofhead slagging off Aucklanders and anyone else who thinks Eden Park would do just fine for the 2011 Rugby World Cup.

In various other corners, all manner of other boofheads touting their personal fantasies of the one stadium to rule them all. Anyone would think rugby was the national religion.

Regardless of your preference, the idea that a one-off sports tournament should become - sorry - a political football is probably inevitable. As a nation we're prone to attacks of the vapours whenever the world heads our way. If you recall the acrimony that attended those round-the-world yacht races and the America's Cup that kick-started Auckland's Viaduct Basin revival, you won't be much surprised by the latest shenanigans.

And not forgetting our rugby hierarchy's inglorious record of negotiating hosting rights - 2011 notwithstanding - it isn't reassuring watching all concerned lose their heads this far out over where to stage the final. I think this, more than any lack of nerve or vision on the part of Aucklanders, lies behind the great indifference and/or opposition to a waterfront behemoth. People are simply deeply suspicious of grandstanding over grandstands by the likes of Mallard.

Me, I don't mind the idea of a big, dumb, mostly empty arena plonked onto the Waitemata waterfront. It'd hardly be worse than the commercial eyesores already cluttering the littoral - be they container terminal, giant apartment complexes or tatty shopping strips. I'm sure they can tack on enough identikit retail outlets, cafes and convention rooms to breath life into the thing. It's what passes for public space these days, so we needn't be fussy.

It's just that when the whole last- minute project is touted by political pointsmen as part of some "vision", as evidence of their "passion" for the city or the country, we need to regain our sceptical equilibrium. Quite apart from the guileless flip-flopping of Dick Hubbard or the shifting logistical projections for such a development, there's something shonky about a make-it-up-as-you-go- along national monument hyped on the run by tired politicians trying to look visionary and passionate.

That they would also suspend normal resource management rules to ram the thing through will stick in the craw of many Aucklanders (of whom I am one) who must jump through a lot of dopey hoops to erect anything larger than a birdbath in their own backyards, never mind an edifice one thousandth as imposing as the proposed Mallardrome.

If the main venue for the world cup is so vital, why wasn't any of this foreshadowed in the original pitch to host the tournament? Surely if an event is significant enough to justify changing the face of a city in the form of a grand architectural statement in a prime location, then the time for discussing such matters is before the ink has been dry for a year on the contract. The redevelopment of Auckland's neglected port area has been debated and planned for some time, and the process should have been able to accommodate another dimension without the current sense of emergency.

But that also presupposes that a rugby competition is a worthy catalyst for geo-cultural regeneration of the kind being promised. I'm not so sure, despite the fact that I do enjoy watching the game and have no special sentimental attachment to Eden Park.

It's usually forgotten in all the media- manufactured mania about rugby that most people aren't obsessed with it - at least to the point of thinking the pursuit of the oval ball is akin to the pursuit of life's meaning. Furthermore, we now struggle to fill even the undersized stadiums currently available, with only a few high-intensity matches guaranteed not to leave an embarrassing patchwork of empty seats for the TV cameras to avoid.

Ironically, there's a feeling that the world cup has helped create this indifference, with the fixation on a four-yearly cycle reducing the importance of ordinary tests in an already overcrowded rugby calendar. In a sense, a new stadium could become a monument to its own semi- redundancy.

While Trevor Mallard held court in Auckland last week, the ANZ bank moved in to take control of the debt- scuttled Telstra Stadium (formerly Stadium Australia) for a song. Making these one-off monsters pay their way once the tourists have departed requires the kind of cool- headed financial forecasting that appears conspicuously absent in the current muddle.

Some have argued boldness must win the day, that we'd never so much as put up a flagpole if nettles weren't grasped and risks taken. I agree, but we shouldn't confuse opportunism with courage or blind faith with conviction. Oddly enough, the way Graham Henry has been methodically working the All Blacks up to the next world cup looks like a model of rational planning and good judgement compared to the way his off-field counterparts are handling preparations to host the one after.

Maybe we should at least be thankful that Mallard, Cullen, Hubbard and the headless chooks of Auckland's local government are only in charge of building a stadium, not what goes on inside it.