With 16,912 fans flocking to Toll Stadium on Saturday and the world watching on live television, Whangarei took its first tentative steps towards hosting World Cup games in 2017.
The area’s governing body, Rugby League Northland, has made no secret of its desire to secure rights for future Test matches and games at the 2017 Rugby League World Cup, which New Zealand and Australia will co-host.
Located in New Zealand’s north, Whangarei is around a two and a half hour drive from Mt Smart Stadium and Eden Park, two venues historically used to host internationals on Kiwi soil.
“There is a World Cup coming around the corner and hopefully we can get some games up here, I will be trying to push for it,” said Kiwis enforcer Adam Blair who was born and raised in Whangarei before shifting across to Australia at 16.
“This week I have been out doing a lot of work in the community and trying to pump up Whangarei; to bring a game like this, it wouldn’t happen normally.
“To come out and see the fans, it was massive.
“I grew up playing rugby union here because there wasn’t really any league in Whangarei then.
“Since I left they have really got behind it all, and us showing our faces up here is going to give it a real boost. We have been working hard this week to do our little bit for Whangarei.”
While the Kiwis were largely indifferent about their 14-12 victory over Samoa – which saw them trail for the majority of the game before scoring a winner with four minutes to go – the playing group were unanimous in their support of the venue and the atmosphere created.
“It was great, I heard the chants going on for both the Kiwis and Samoa and I know a few busloads of fans came up from Auckland,” said New Zealand captain Simon Mannering.
“I think it is great for the game, it was a great turnout and all week there has been a great buzz around.
“I think it is a real positive sign for rugby league in New Zealand if we can come out to these more rural places and get turnouts like that.”
Front-rower Martin Taupau, who played his third Test in the victory, said any World Cup bid would have his full backing.
“The crowd was unbelievable, mate. They came out in force and it was great for Whangarei.
“100 per cent I will back it, I will back it myself. I am glad that Whangarei welcomed us with open arms and it was a great crowd.”
The man behind the World Cup dream, and the recent transformation of rugby league in the area, is Rugby League Northland general manager Alex Smits.
With more kids than ever playing the game in the area and a community crying out for more top class rugby league, Smits believes the time is right to bring more internationals to Whangarei.
“When we started as an organisation in 2010 there were only 650 registered players across the whole of Northland – this year alone we had close to 3000 kids playing rugby league at various levels from primary school, high school to club competition,” Smits said.
“The New Zealand Rugby League is talking about reviving the NZ residents in the future so maybe that is where we start…bring those games up here and get good crowds.
“This was a good test of the stadium because no one actually knew what capacity it had.
“It held just under 17,000 and probably had the capacity to hold another three or four thousand as well. I think next time around they will be able to promote it a bit better and get an even better crowd in.
“Obviously the World Cup in 2017 is where we will try and make sure we get one, two maybe even three games up here.”