One of the most satisfying experiences I have had over the past 5 years since venturing out into the big wide world is realising dreams that I have had since childhood, places I have wanted to go, things I have wanted to do and experiences I had all but given up on before leaving home. One such dream has been to watch the All Blacks play at Cardiff Arms Park, in fact I remember as an 11 year old, writing an essay at school entitled “The Yellow Brick Road to Cardiff” in which I outlined my dream of playing for the All Blacks against Wales at the legendary Cardiff Arms Park. While I may never have achieved the ultimate goal of playing for the All Blacks, I had still wanted to experience watching them live in Wales.
The Greatest Team to Ever Walk the Earth
For those of you unfamiliar with who the All Blacks are, well they are the New Zealand national rugby team, feared by all, beaten by few….. in fact the greatest sports team to ever walk the earth, who have dominated their sport internationally since 1905, a reign like no other team in any other sport.
So when my parents told me they were flying half way around the world to be surprise guests at one of my great mates 50th birthday parties and they had spare tickets to the rugby in Cardiff, there was no hesitation in saying “I will see you in November then”….
This is my third visit to London now and despite not being a city that had ever really appealed to me, it is growing on me each time. There is just so much to see that I must really book a proper trip to London and spend some real time there.
Lets Get That Motor Running
Thursday morning dawned and it was time to go pick up our rental car and make our way to Cardiff. Dad and I walked down to the rental car office to pick up the car I had booked. We wandered through a dodgy looking building to a little booth on the far side which turned out to be the office. The joker behind the counter was having some problems sorting our car out as we had somehow ended up with an upgrade, so after going through everything with us and contacting various people higher up we ended up with the keys to an almost new VW Passat. When we were sitting in the car I asked Dad if he understood the guy at he counter, as I had struggled to understand anything he said, but had put it down to being away from an non-native English environment for the last 5 years, turns out he didn’t understand a word he said either or what the hell we had just signed up for…. Anyway from there it was a quick trip back to pick up Mum and our gear and then hit the road. As some of Dad’s English ancesters were from Sommerset we decided that we would head to Cardiff via the little village of Baltonsborough and at least go and visit the church they would have frequented when they lived in the area. Despite some early interchange misses we finally arrived in Baltonsborough only to find that it seemed larger and harder to navigate in real life than it did on Google Maps and it didn’t help that mobile reception seemed to cut out in the area so we had to hunt around a bit before finally finding the church, which was unfortunately going through some interior renovations. Was good though to finally discover a little part of our Gill family heritage. From there it was a bit of guess work to head towards Glastonbury until my phone got reception again and could guide us more accurately. After Glastonbury we headed to Weston-super-Mare as this was the childhood home of a good friend of my parents. We made our way to the beach and picked up a few souvenirs before setting off on the last leg to Cardiff and our home for the next few nights the Focus Inn Cardiff Bay.
On the Friday after a great breakfast in the hotel’s restaurant we decided to familiarise ourselves with the stadium which Mum assured us was within walking distance (about 400m from her calculations…). Well seems she didn’t realise that they had changed the name of the stadium from Millenium Stadium to Principality Stadium and that she had booked us within walking distance of the Millenium Centre, at least we were in the right city though. We found the stadium and the gate we were to head to the next evening so had a look around but unfortunately couldn’t go in and take a look at the historic Cardiff Arms Park ground right next door due to the match on there that night, but I did manage to get a peek over the fence.
From there we were off to check out some of the other parts of Wales with strange sounding names we could never pronounce properly. Our first stop was Llanelli about 90 mins drive from Cardiff, a place infamous in All Black history as the place they lost in 1972 to the local club team, a match that has been dubbed the greatest upset in club rugby and also hailed as one of the top 10 world rugby moments of all time. (Find out more here). After getting totally flustered on a roundabout and cutting a bus driver off (who flicked me the bird and questioned my intelligence on his way back past us, much to Dad’s amusement, as we were parked up working out where we were meant to be heading) we eventually found Stradey Park, although it now seemed to be a shadow of its former self. From there it was on Swansea, where the All Blacks were beaten for the first time ever by a club side in 1935. We found the town centre and had a wander around the Christmas market and found ourselves made most welcome by the locals. Swansea has definitely seen better times than Llanelli which seemed to have a grittier, more downtrodden feel about it compared to Swansea’s modern upbeat atmosphere. From Swansea it was back to Cardiff to enjoy a delicious Welsh Lamb meal in the hotel restaurant.
Saturday was the big day we had been waiting for, the realisation of a dream many kiwis have of watching our beloved All Blacks take on Wales on their home turf. With a 7:30pm start in mind (mum had assured us…) we decided to check out the city in the morning before getting an early dinner in the restaurant and off to the ground about 6:00pm. We caught a bus into the city where we took in the atmosphere as the rest of the 75,000 crowd were converging on the city from the Valleys. There were people everywhere and red shirts outnumbering black many times over. The Christmas markets were in full swing, the souvenir vendors at every street corner with their stands full of hats, flags, scarves and various other items for both sides, it really was a city that lived for its rugby. After looking around, grabbing some lunch and doing a little shopping it was back to the hotel around 2:00pm for a bit of a rest before dinner and rugby. It was fortuitous that when I flicked the TV on there was a live telecast of the Scotland vs Australia rugby match which Scotland was winning so Dad and I watched this while Mum took a snooze. At halftime the commentators start talking about the schedule for the rest of the evening and how they will cross to Wales at 4:45pm for the All Blacks build up and then over to the England match at 7:30pm, which confused me a little as I couldn’t work out why they would take in the All Blacks build up but not the match. We decided we better check the tickets and bugger me days we saw that the start time was 17:00 which mum had incorrectly read as 7:00pm, so it was action stations as we woke mum up got changed and ran out to find a taxi to get us to the stadium quickly.
Luckily we made it in time and found our seats, mine was in the top tier behind the goal line, and had time to take in the build up as the stadium quickly filled to capacity. It was a totally amazing experience to be in such a passionate crowd who loved their team and believed that they even had a chance tonight. The singing was sensational and the Welsh fans around me were friendly one even offering me a wee dram of his whiskey in the 2nd half. While I love to see the All Blacks win, I prefer to see them earn a hard fought win than run away from the start and tonight’s match offered that with Wales in contention for the best part of 70 minutes until Rieko Ioane snarred an intercept within the All Blacks half and burst away to score what was a match sealing try down in front of me. You could feel the total sense of despair in the crowd as they all realised that no matter how well they played that night it was all over. The All Blacks ran out comfortable winners in the end but at least it wasn’t all one way traffic.
Sunday was a chance to do a bit of a tiki tour of thr wider Cardiff City area before dropping my parents at the train station for the next leg of their journey and the drive back to London Gatwick for me as I had to return to work on Monday.
That was definitely something checked off the bucket list and has made me hungry to watch the All Blacks in some of the other great European venues while I am in this part of the world.
If you have to opportunity to head to Wales, take it, it is a wonderful country where the people are friendly and the prices are cheaper than in England.