As a New Zealander living in Sweden probably the last thing one would expect is for the All Blacks to visit town. After all Sweden is a rugby backwater, a speck of dirt on the sleeve of Ritchie McCaw’s battered jersey, a country where the vast majority of the population are not even aware what the game is, let alone that it is actually played in their country. A visit from the All Blacks would garner about as much excitement in Sweden as a visit from cross-country ski machine Petter Northug would in New Zealand…. Not much…. So why did three of the men from one of the best rugby teams around come to this rugby void at the top of the world? What would entice them to put off going straight home after a long and tiring season, a five week long tour and a punishing defeat at the hands of fantastically inconsistent England. What would entice them to make the trip north to the frigid cold of Scandinavia when a beautiful southern summer beckoned? The answer? Well we can obviously cross off by choice. There were no thoughts of an adventure in a snow filled winter wonderland in the minds of the lads when they headed this way. No the reason was much simpler: Beer.
Steinlager Pure: Welcome to Sweden, the reason why the All Blacks were in town.
Now I don’t want to be misleading when I say this so perhaps the promotion of beer is more accurate. It isn’t like they thought they would have a few days in Sweden getting on the drink and chatting to some of the famous local blond talent after a long season! The three All Blacks came to the frozen, frigid north to promote beer. Steinlager to be precise. The kiwi beer has officially got a distribution deal sorted with the country’s notoriously strict alcohol people, who rumour has it are actually former members of the Gestapo bought to Sweden after the Second World War to enforce a ridiculously strict alcohol policy. Well what better way to promote the release of Steinlager, major sponsor of the All Blacks for about as long as monks have been putting aside religious study to spend quality time with quality hops, although apparently not as ‘major’ as AIG who emptied Uncle Scrooge’s vault in order to defile the famous black jersey, than to drag three of the team away from their families for a few extra days and have them take part in a number of ‘events’ across Stockholm.
The modern day AB jersey with AIG front and centre. Funny what difference a couple of years can make to a company.
So who were the lucky three? As an Otago lad I was delighted to discover it was future Highlander, Tony Woodcock, former Highlander Adam Thompson and up and coming second row superstar Brodie Retallick. A triumvirate of beefy All Black forwards ready to tackle a few days in rugby blind Sweden. Word of their visit had been whispered around Swedish rugby and ex-pat circles, which, as far as circles go, rank in size with the onion ring, for sometime but concrete information had been harder to come by than a Scottish victory. It was not until the day before the visit that I stumbled across the confirmation that things were indeed happening. A friend and fellow veteran of the mighty Attila Rugby Gang sent word on Facebook that he had a ticket to an exclusive party which would be attended by the All Blacks. Like a goose in a rush to get its feathers plucked I eagerly put forward my interest and was advised that I would be going. For a moment I realised how Charlie must have felt when the golden ticket revealed itself after he peeled back the chocolate wrapper. My friend, being the reliable sort, told me the events location was, strangely, a small local bar in Stockholm’s Old Town, and at the pre-arranged time I made sure I was there to meet him. After arriving at the bar I queried the bartender about the All Blacks arrival. He stopped still and gave me a bemused look, sort of like I had asked him if he had seen Jesus lately. After a brief conversation I soon established that he knew absolutely nothing about the visit. Something was up. Ten minutes after I had walked in through the door my knowledgeable friend arrived, a brief period of confusion ensued, followed by some frantic phone calls after which we managed to finally establish that we were indeed at the wrong place. Time to move on. After a 15 minute walk or so and some more confusion we finally found the right place and made our way in.
The lads in front of the Steinlager sign before the big event
Having dressed in casual attire I was somewhat surprised to see a professional looking camera man eagerly snapping all the arriving guests in front of a large Steinlager sign. Apparently what I had been led to believe was a few drinks with the All Blacks was a ‘thing’. Upon entering my friend and I stood behind a couple who were accosted by several more photographers who were snapping away like eager crocodiles. We stood patiently behind waiting for our chance to step into the bright lights of the paparazzi cameras. Our big moment never came to pass however as we were ushered through by one of the photographers who were keen to get to the ‘real’ B grade celebs who were standing behind us. I was even giving it my I don’t care, semi celebrity look, perhaps the fact that I was dressed like a bum belied my common man existence. We then came into the main area where I saw an eclectic mix of fellow Swedish rugby enthusiasts, smartly dressed Swedes, promoters and several ‘B’ grade celebrities who I can only imagine go to these things as often as possible in order to be ‘spotted’. Not really the kind of scene I was expecting but a nice change anyway. Most of the crowd had no idea who the guests of honour were but stridently partook in the fine art of networking, hoping to secure a spot in the next big reality TV series. We, on the other hand, were determined to make it to the bar and were delighted to find that the beers were free, a just reward for the hard slog through the wintry conditions outside.
The formal presentation had a brief interview. On the bottom is a couple of Swedish strongmen who tested the AB’s strength earlier in the day.
About half an hour after our arrival, during which time we happily mingled in our own social circles of course, the three guests of honour came out. Thompson and Woodcock, although appearing as if they had just completed a five week long northern hemisphere rugby tour, immediately joined the mingling with the waiting crowds, they were obviously comfortable in this sort of situation having been on several tours previously. Retallick however, was much more reserved, preferring the company of the bar’s edge. It was almost as if he was leaving the open bar area behind him free in case he needed to make a quick escape, and with a bevy of beautiful Swedish girls champing at the bit for some All Black meat that was probably the smartest thing he could have done! As a rookie tourist he was obviously still adjusting to the off field demands of the game.
Adam Thompson: Otago rugby will miss him, quality player for a number of years.
With the opportunity too good to miss, I was soon casually strolling over to make my introduction. Tony Woodcock was the first I approached mainly because earlier in the day my friend had organised for him to give me a call and invite me to the party. I had answered the call and was immediately sceptical, scanning through my mental index of kiwi accents to try and pinpoint who it REALLY was on the phone. Unable to find a suitable match I hesitantly decided it might actually be Tony Woodcock, which it turned out to be. Woodcock seemed like a nice bloke and we chatted briefly, he said he was looking forward to playing in Otago next year and that he wanted a change of scene (although who wouldn’t want a change of scene when you play for Auckland!), he was a bit reserved as you would expect but a good fella who will hopefully tear it up at the Toaster next year.
I then popped over to Adam Thompson who was perhaps the most popular and outgoing of the three. He confirmed my fear that he would be going to Japan but hadn’t decided which club. He said that with the rugby career being so short it was a late career pay day that he could not miss out on, and who can blame him really. Unfortunately one of the offshoots of professionalism is that many rugby players are simply unable to get a University education like they used to. I remember a few years back when most players in Otago would go to the University while they played rugby giving them another profession once they could no longer get battered week in week out on the rugby field but those days seem to be gone.
With Adam Thompson and Tony Woodcock
A few beers later I headed Retallick’s way to chat. Admittedly I didn’t know too much about him except he played Lock for the Super 15 winning Chiefs and was a bolter for the AB’s, he had loosened up a little with a few drinks and was happy to chat, I think he was actually a little happy to have another kiwi to talk to. He seemed to be a good guy, excited about the season he had had and the seasons to come. I asked him if he was worried about the Highlanders next year and he said tongue in cheek that all the new guys were too old and they would be no problem, I guess only time will tell if he is right on that front! He even said that he liked Hamilton! Something that I took as being his attempt at political correctness because everyone knows there is nothing to do in Hamilton! Overall he seemed like a good, young fella with a cracking sense of humour, on an adventure, and one can only hope that he keeps getting better and is with the All Blacks for many years to come.
Brodie Retallick seemed like a good fella
The night wore on and the free Steinlager, which I was obliged to consume purely because of the prohibitively high prices of alcohol in Sweden means that turning away free ones is tantamount to the most dire of sins, continued to flow . I was lucky enough to also chat with Swedish men’s Handball team coach and legend Staffan Olsson, who seemed like a top guy, very humble and happy to talk despite me being determined to speak English because it was too loud for me to get even close to following the conversation in Swedish. He was interested in rugby although did not know too much about it, rather similar to my knowledge of handball, interested but not enough to really know anything about it.
Swedish Handball legend Staffan Olsson, a good bloke who indulged my poor Swedish
The hours eventually ticked down to the time I had to make my exit. As I left the three All Blacks, possibly the first All Blacks to come to Sweden on official business, remained chatting to a host of loyal fans. For me it was a little piece of home being imported to Sweden for one night. I gingerly made my way to the exit, struggling to come to terms with my diminished capacity for drinking that having two kids has bought on. As I made my way out into the freezing night I was immediately faced with a snow storm snapping large flakes of snow into my exposed face. A deep layer of snow now also covered the streets in a blanket of glistening white powder forcing me to struggle, stumbling my way to the nearest taxi. The storm would rage through the whole night covering the city in a decent couple of feet of snow, severely disrupting transportation systems, communications and pretty much every other aspect of everyday life. As I watched the next day’s news report which stated that no flights would be leaving Stockholm’s Arlanda airport I could only feel lucky that I wasn’t the guy who had to go to the rooms of the three tired, probably hungover All Blacks, and tell them that they would have to stay another night away from their families in the frozen north of the world, in a country where their sport is only a speck on the radar of the sporting calendar…….It sure was good to have them here though!
There will be no flights after this. One night’s snowfall!