LISTEN TO JARROD BEAR TALK WITH MARTIN DEVLIN ABOVE
Next Saturday afternoon when Auckland host Canterbury in the Mitre 10 Cup final, Eden Park's gates will be flung open and anyone who wants to have a look can do so for free; an extraordinary gesture almost without precedent in the modern game.
Auckland Rugby's largesse probably partly stems from a clash with the All Blacks v Wallabies Bledisloe Cup test in Yokohama which kicks off at 7pm NZT (nearly three hours after the 4.05pm Eden Park kick-off).
Regardless, it is a bold move which will have an effect on the union's bottom line and the message behind the gesture is about rewarding Auckland rugby's supporters' loyalty and for that new coaches Alama Ieremia, Filo Tiatia and (the not so new) Graham Henry deserve a huge amount of credit.
They and the team proved they had something about them when they comfortably accounted for defending champions Canterbury in Christchurch early in the season and now they have the chance to do it on the biggest stage.
Like they were in their 38-17 victory over Wellington in yesterday's semifinal, they will be minus the talents of loose forward Dalton Papali'i, who will be with the All Blacks in Japan, but they will be in possession of one Akira Ioane, who isn't in Japan and is playing like he deserves to be.
Ioane, with two tries in a committed and disciplined personal performance against Wellington, was a notable omission from Steve Hansen's 51-player squad and while he has been selected for the New Zealand Maori, there is no doubt he would have been devastated to miss the trip with the top team.
"It's not about proving a point, I just want what's best for the team," Ioane said at Eden Park yesterday after his inspirational performance. "Today I had to step up. There is still a lot more to work on. I'm just doing my job within the team."
Ioane didn't want to talk about his disappointment, but coach Ieremia was happy to because Ioane's power and experience have been two big factors in his team getting this far this season.
"It speaks volumes about the character of the player when he had some big disappointments this week - obviously missing out," said Ieremia, a former All Black midfielder.
"Him not making the All Blacks, and I think I can speak on his behalf, is a disappointment, but today he made a statement. He made a statement and a half, really.
"Yes he still has areas to work on for the next level, but hopefully today was an indication of his potential that he can offer a team. As I mentioned in the media last week, we base a lot of play around the tight five to do their work, but also our loose forwards who can do their decision making off the back of that… Akira was a massive influence in the whole game, really."
For his part, Ioane believes the influence of a new group of coaches has been crucial after another disappointing season for Auckland last year when they finished sixth of seven teams and were in big danger of being relegated to the Championship.
"A big pillar this year was earning respect – for the jersey and for us," Ioane said. "I feel like we're building. We definitely made a statement, but there's a game next week… I guess we've done well, but there is still a lot more to accomplish.
"Alama and Fila have come in and set the rules; it's black and white, that's it. If you're late or wear the wrong stuff you get shot… we've been on top of it the whole time. There are no more passengers."
And now the team are on the brink against an outfit who have won the title 10 times in the last 11 years. But given the vast improvements and the way Auckland are playing now with tempo and control, the competition pace-setters must be favoured to go the whole way.
And the people of Auckland get to watch it for free on what will hopefully be a fine and sunny afternoon as it was yesterday; a quite remarkable result.
"I think it's a great initiative for the whole city… family, frends, all the supporters of the team," Ieremia said. "I know it's been tough over the last few years. I have to be careful I don't speak out of turn, but it has been difficult. The way the team has been performing … this is really a big thank you to all the supporters for coming through those tough times. Now that we're actually in the final their loyalty needs to be rewarded."