Auckland’s Magon had shown lackluster energy throughout the tournament. Even when pressed in pool play on a universe point against the team from Christchurch, the sidelines were subdued at best. On Sunday, Magon cruised through their semifinal against their own development squad, Dragorgan, in a similarly emotionless manner. The finals, however, were a completely different story.
I didn’t know what to expect when I arrived in Christchurch. I knew that the earthquakes three years ago had decimated much of the eastern part of the city, but I didn’t know what remained. 189 people were killed and the economic and structural damage to the city was massive. Walking around downtown, condemned and closed buildings are an all too familiar site, in what feels almost like a set from Mad Max. Open shops and restaurants are scattered across town, overwhelmed either by construction or frighteningly quiet streets. A cab driver told me that nearly 20% of the population had moved away from Christchurch after the quakes. Even three years later, the city is still in a rebuilding phase, but in a quick stroll through the botanical gardens, in catching a glimpse of the lovely hills or uncovering pop-up innovations like malls constructed out of giant containers or random freestanding washing machine jukeboxes, it’s clear that Christchurch is and always has been a city at the heart of the human spirit — filled with much beauty and passion to prosper.
On fields twenty minutes from downtown, the sun was starting to peak out from overcast skies prevalent throughout the tournament. At the start of the final, Magon had seemingly let the floodgates open. Warm-ups were filled with bumps, cheers, and fast, pounding feet. The initial onslaught on their rivals, the Victoria Wildcats, was swift, with Magon breaking on the first point, and climbing to a 8-5 lead at halftime. It seemed at this point as if the Wildcats were on their heels and the game was over. There was no sign of life from the Wildcats sideline. Later, they would reveal that at this point in the game, they too considered it all but lost. But when Victoria broke back after half, the mood of the game changed. Suddenly Magon’s offense struggled to take the disc off of the line, and started forcing shots that the energy of the first half had easily allowed for. Slowly the Magon sideline grew quieter as their offense gave up the disc again and again, and Victoria unremarkably marched the disc in. Was this really happening? Had Magon given up all of their momentum to drop two points behind and put Victoria on the doorstep of unseating the four-time New Zealand Champions?
In four years, Magon had seen little challenge nationally. In years 1 and 2, the Auckland team had found success by merely being the most practiced squad in a developing New Zealand ultimate scene. Slowly, a university team out of Wellington, led by former NexGenner Aaron Neal, was building. Victoria’s first berth into the finals was met by swift defeat at the hands of Auckland. But in 2013, Magon received their first challenge in a universe point final against the Wildcats. Although athletic and determined, the Wildcats were unable to close the door on a championship, missing opportunity after opportunity in a 25 minute final point.
Despite the victory, to an outsider, the story would start to seem like that of a frog in boiling water. The competitive world of ultimate in New Zealand was changing around Magon, and though determined to become competitive internationally, Magon had yet to be tested where it could hurt, on their home turf.
Relegated to the defensive line, the ending run of the final was tough to witness. With the game all but won, the holes in Magon’s offense started to show as the Wildcats adjusted to a more poachy defense. Auckland would make the same mistakes over and over again, getting trapped on the line, failing to dump and swing, and looking for a bailout huck to force the disc downfield. Victoria may not have had the firepower to dominate, but they had grown immune to the aura of Magon’s reputation. They stayed the course, and walked through Magon’s self-destruction to their first title, putting a stop to Auckland’s reign as champions.
The loss hit many players on Magon hard. Some dropped to their knees, a captain found himself in tears. In four years of titles the New Zealand Championship had become familiar property. Having it slip from their fingers, by seemingly their own accord, was like dropping a precious family heirloom and watching it shatter on the floor.
In New Zealand, spirit circles in which teams congratulate each other are customary after games. This circle was filled with mixed emotions as leaders from Magon proudly congratulated the Wildcats on their victory. Still, there was a hesitation in the body language of the Wildcats. It was as if they had tiptoed into Magon’s domain and were still unwilling to disturb Magon’s legacy. As with many dreams, it’s often hard to believe when they come true. In time, this victory will strengthen the Wildcats’ reserve as they realize their play won them a championship. And in time, Magon too will learn how to move forward.
As I’m thanked for my time with the team, I witness the pain in captain Zev Fishman’s eyes. Magon is a team built on a dream of becoming great at something. On Fishman’s initiative, it grew into a four-time New Zealand champion and began to emerge internationally. In this moment, the foundations of Fishman’s world seem to have crumbled. But then I look to the future for this team. I look to the determined and caring leadership of captains Fishman, Jack Turner and Sherif Ibrahim and the play of outstanding young talents like Ryan Greaves, Aiden Hurley, Lauchlan Robertson and Troy Stevenson, and I know that Magon will grow from this.
Like Christchurch itself, a city that is relying on its intrinsic beauty to rebuild better than before, Magon too has an opportunity to build from setbacks. While the wins that decorate a resume bolster confidence and accomplishment, perhaps in the end it is not about the records, or the medals in ones closet, but instead the stories and challenges that propel you forward. Perhaps this will be the growth that Magon needed all along.