On the eve of the Rugby World Cup semifinals, Suzanne McFadden goes behind the scenes of Eden Park – with thousands of frozen chips and handmade poi waiting for the crowds – and meets the women in charge.

The first thing that hits you walking into Eden Park the day before the Rugby World Cup semifinals? The silence.

The carparks are almost ghostly, the ‘Garden of Eden’ turf an unblemished, wide carpet of emerald green; every one of the 40,000-odd seats in the stands flipped up.

Suddenly there’s a roar that echoes around the stadium, but it’s not human. They’re testing the speaker system, with a wall of noise that makes you jump.

I’d imagined New Zealand’s iconic stadium would be heaving with people on the eve of one of the biggest days in this women’s Rugby World Cup, hurriedly preparing for a crowd of somewhere between 20-30,000 expected to pour in on Saturday afternoon. Especially when the forecast is for fine weather – clouds pushed away in the afternoon by a fresh southwesterly wind.

But by Friday morning, most plans have already been actioned. The playing field is manicured to within an inch of its life, the 6000 punnets of hot chips are in the freezers, the 8000 handcrafted poi (some of them made this week by Rugby World Cup staff to meet demand) are waiting to be twirled.

Later on Friday afternoon, the four teams who’ll face off in today’s semifinals – England and Canada; France and the Black Ferns – get in a quick captain’s run on the playing field. The teams’ kickers practise putting the ball between the sticks.

Preparing for a sports international like this is like running a small city, Eden Park CEO Nick Sautner says. But on this day, it feels like everyone packed up and left early for Christmas.

Then you discover, it’s a pretty lean team who run Eden Park outside match days. 

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The second thing you notice is how many women work here. Once a bastion of male sport, Eden Park now has females in many leading roles.

And they’re all quietly cheering on the three women’s World Cups being played here over two years, that will no doubt change the face of this hallowed ground.

The first woman I meet is Karen French, who was the first female employed by the Eden Park Trust Board back in 1992. She was previously the commercial manager, and now she looks after reception and the tourism side of the stadium, like the glamping domes and the zipline.

Sautner dashes out of his office, eager to introduce me to many of the women leading teams within the stadium. 

He’s quick to point out the four most important people in his life are all female – his wife and two young daughters, and his mum, Diane, in Melbourne. “My father passed away when I was two and Mum dedicated her life to her three boys. She was the one who kicked the ball back to me, she was my first coach,” says Sautner, who was an Aussie Rules player who won five VFL premierships.

Eden Park CEO Nick Sautner with his daughters, Amelia (left) and Anastasia, with the RWC trophy nicknamed Nancy. Photo: supplied. 

We stop to speak to Lian Tetley, the membership manager, who’s worked here for 35 years and has also introduced sustainability to Eden Park. (“FIFA have come here and said we are leading the industry in what we’re doing with sustainability,” Sautner says proudly). 

Tetley liaises with the Eden Park members who want to attend the World Cup tests. “They’re loving it,” she says. “We haven’t really had women’s rugby here on its own before, but interest has picked up phenomenally in the last week. Women’s rugby is really making an impact.”

In fact, Tetley has made a suggestion to Sautner – since there are no All Blacks tests at Eden Park next year (because of the FIFA Women’s World Cup being played here), why not host a standalone Black Ferns test instead? “We’d get huge support for that,” she says.

You’ll remember the opening day of the Rugby World Cup, a month ago now, courted a world record crowd for a women’s rugby test of over 34,000. Sautner thinks it’s realistic to get 25,000 through the turnstiles for the semifinals, but the final’s crowd in a week’s time may set a new record.

That’s likely to depend on whether the defending champion Black Ferns beat their bogey team, France.  They’ve lost in their past four meetings. (There’s a bronze play-off match next Saturday, too).

The people who came to that opening triple header were diverse – a third of the groups included kids; 30 percent of the crowd were from outside Auckland; 12 percent were international visitors. Some had never been to Eden Park before. 

Kate Simkiss is Eden Park’s corporate legal manager, who’s also worked at England’s national stadium, Wembley. She’s seeing a cultural shift in the codes and the crowds at Eden Park. 

“Our content has shifted. We’ll have more football than cricket next year,” she says. “Having the women’s game between the [world champions] United States and the Football Ferns in January is great [a fixture announced this week]. There will be daytime crowds too – so more kids and family groups.”

The US team have been drawn to play in New Zealand for the World Cup pool matches next July, and could bring around 35,000 fans with them.  

The Black Ferns changing room at Eden Park before RWC21 game one v Australia. Photo: Getty Images. 

Holding three women’s World Cups at Eden Park over two years has meant making changes. Like to the changing rooms.

When the players arrive at the ground 90 minutes before kick-off, they’ll set up in the new gender-neutral changing rooms – part of a $15m Sport NZ upgrade project at sportsgrounds throughout the country, triggered by the world tournaments. Until this year, there were only male changing rooms at Eden Park – a urinal and one toilet really didn’t work so well for teams of 23 women.

At just 30, Chynna Laughton is the senior event manager at the stadium, overseeing whatever goes on off the field. One of the key people in the operations team, most of her work behind the scenes is done in the weeks leading up to game day. “On match day, if we’re not too busy, we’ve planned well,” she says. “I’m like the puzzle holder, and it’s fitting all the pieces into the puzzle seamlessly.”

Saturday will be a long day for Laughton, who’ll start at 7am and likely spend the next 18 hours on her feet, walking around the stadium connected to the organising team through an earpiece. Some of the staff will walk 20km – through the elaborate warrens that run under the stadium and around the main concourse – on semifinals day.

“We don’t get to watch much, but we keep an eye on what’s happening because that impacts on what the crowd’s doing,” says Laughton, who started at Eden Park as an intern a decade ago, and who’s painted her nails in the blue and green colours of the RWC2021.

Chynna Laughton overlooks Eden Park. Photo: Suzanne McFadden.

There will be 300 people working in security and operations, and just over 100 volunteers, who’ll help guide spectators and hand out the much-sought after free poi, which have become one of the big success stories of this tournament.

More than 540 people will be involved in catering around the stadium. There are 22 chefs in the main kitchen, preparing food for not only corporate guests and those working at the game, but the four teams, too.

We bump into Cathy Boyle, who Sautner calls “an institution at Eden Park”. She was the corporate set-up manager in catering, working for 30 years until she retired 10 years ago. Now she helps out – virtually every game day – making sure the food is delivered to the teams and officials. She’s clearly not retired.

There’s a hint of sadness in the kitchen on Friday. Etta Jones, the venue catering manager, has been called away after the death of a family member. Jones is a huge supporter of women’s rugby – her sister is four-times World Cup champion and Black Fern captain Fiao’o Fa’amausili, who’s now president of Auckland Rugby.

Vaasa Samnieng-Hong prepares sandwiches in the main Eden Park kitchen. Photo: Suzanne McFadden.

The main kitchen will serve 2594 main meals on Saturday. Vaasa Samnieng-Hong was a sous chef until she retired, but she still comes back to help run the kitchen for the big events, looking after a team of a dozen.

She met her husband, Sammy, working in this kitchen back in 1996.  He also returns every game day to make his famous curry.  They have a daughter who works here, too.

No matter where in the stadium, hot chips are still the biggest seller (they expect to sell 6000 punnets on Saturday, as well as 8500 bottles of water and soft drinks).

We stop for coffee on the deck of one of the corporate lounges above the ground, with Maria Syme and Nicky Wallace from Eden Park Catering.

So much of working at Eden Park is about family, they say. Wallace’s 17-year-old daughter, Isabella, will be checking fans’ tickets on Gate J today. “She’s lining up Nick’s job,” Syme laughs. “That’s how a lot of people in leadership roles have started here – as school kids working part-time.”

Ten years ago, the staff were asked to profile who they saw as an Eden Park fan. “It was an older man wearing a brown cardigan,” says Syme. That’s rapidly changing with the help of this tournament. 

“It’s a festival, attracting so many families,” Wallace says.

Nicky Wallace, Nick Saunter and Maria Syme prepare for up to 30,000 people at Eden Park on Saturday. Photo: Suzanne McFadden.  

There hasn’t been another game played on Eden Park since the opening triple-header. But there have been dozens of events hosted in between, including the closing ceremony for the women’s Defence Rugby World Cup (incidentally won by France in a tense final with New Zealand).

The turf is in immaculate condition for the semis, Sautner says. It’s a hybrid – made up of 95 percent rye grass, grown at their turf farm in Karaka, and five percent synthetic fibres made in South Korea (its own special blend called ‘HG Hero Eden Park Edition’).

Once this tournament is over, they’ll lay new turf – sometime during the five days between a SIX60 concert and a one-day international cricket match between the Black Caps and India.

In a corner beneath the South Stand is the turf shed, where a team of eight work seven days a week tending to the grass. (There’s a ‘Toro Turf Cam’ where 3000 people a week tune in to watch the Eden Park grass grow. Seriously.)

All the teams get to visit their den, nicknamed the ‘Ideas Factory’ with its second-hand couches and big screen TV, to sign the walls decorated with famous sports jerseys.

Turf manager Blair Christiansen explains there are four different microclimates on the field, determined by the stadium’s shadows and the seasons.

From 7am on Saturday, the turf team will get to work, giving the field a final mow and a brush to create the distinct patterns on the grass. They’ll lay down the line markings and tend to any last-minute divots. Eden Park is the first sportsground in the country to remove painted sponsors logos from the field of play – replaced with purely digital logos.

The Black Ferns perform a spine-tinging haka before their opening RWC2021 match on Eden Park. Photo: Hannah Peters/World Rugby. 

Sautner says there’s “very limited visibility” of the 3000 people who deliver an event like the Rugby World Cup semifinals – “from the train driver, to catering, security and the cleaners”.

“But there’s a huge amount of pride that goes into putting on a world-class event at this stadium,” he says.

He knows there’s a fine line between making headlines around the world for the right and wrong reasons.

“You’re managing a small city. The internet of things manages 90 percent of our infrastructure – turnstiles, lighting, point of sale,” he says.

“Then you can have 1.8 billion viewers watching the opening of the Rugby League World Cup in the UK, and their sound system failed.

“Then sadly in the last month, you’ve had crowd violence and [133] deaths in a football stadium in Indonesia, and then in South Korea with the Halloween crowd surge crush [150 deaths].”

He fondly remembers a day Eden Park made international headlines.

Sautner recalls the day in March, 2018, when US president Barack Obama arrived in Auckland – the same day the Black Caps dismissed England for 58 in a test match at Eden Park.  “We made eight front pages around the world; Obama didn’t make one.”

He hopes the Black Ferns write their own headlines in the course of the next week.

The semifinals of the Rugby World Cup 2021 at Eden Park on Saturday begin with Canada taking on England at 4.30pm, and the Black Ferns facing France at 7.30pm. Coverage of both games will be live on Spark Sport and Three.

Suzanne McFadden, the 2021 Voyager Media Awards Sports Journalist of the Year, founded LockerRoom, dedicated to women's sport.

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