Thursday 22 February 2018

'It feels like an event. Everything is set up, ready for the rugby to deliver on the hype'

Lions boss Warren Gatland
Lions boss Warren Gatland

Ruaidhri O'Connor in New Zealand

There's something about a television advertisement that instructs on how to behave in the event of a Tsunami which reminds you that you're a long, long way from home.

The hotel I'm writing from was one of the few buildings to survive the earthquake that hit Christchurch in 2011 and it stood alone for many of the years that followed, overlooking the damaged cathedral and looming over the decimated South Island city.

English colleagues who were in this neck of the woods on tour in 2014 recall seeing rubble everywhere as the insurance companies dragged their heels, but today reveals a city on the rise - figuratively and literally - and all around Cathedral Square there is construction as the city rebounds.

The cathedral itself remains boarded up and a controversial, sore topic as the Anglican church deliberate on their next step. For the time being, it remains a relic to the 'quake that took 154 lives six years ago, toppling a number of buildings damaged in another earthquake six months before.

As the city responds, its rugby team thrives.

The Crusaders have long been the market-leaders in this part of the world and after a short lull they are being restored to their own former glory under the impressive, likeable guidance of Scott Robertson.

The former All Black, who once spent a season playing with Ards in Co Down in his formative years, is following in the foot-steps of some coaching giants who plied their trade in this corner of the South Island.

A look at the Canterbury team that beat the Lions in 1983 reveals the names of Robbie Deans and Wayne Smith, two leading lights of the coaching world; while Graham Henry and Steve Hansen also began their coaching lives in the region.

What is clearly evident as the tour unfolds is how important it is to the locals.

I covered the 2009 tour of South Africa and until the Tests began it felt like a bit of an afterthought to the locals whose focus was firmly on the next year's World Cup. Four years later, Australia barely noticed the rugby even if they couldn't ignore the large army of fans who invaded for the Tests.

Here, there is a keen interest throughout society and while they want to beat the tourists at every turn they are also doing their utmost to make the travelling fans as welcome as possible.

Understandably, accommodation in Christchurch is in short supply so the locals have opened their doors and have billeted the early-arriving Lions fans in their homes.

Rugby Park sold out for this game months ago and one leading All Black made sure it was his stipulated in his contract that he would play against the Lions, whether the national team management wanted him to or not.

On Thursday night, Robertson hosted a fundraiser for his local club Sumner RFC and held a Q&A session with Justin Marshall while also asking the Irish Independent to provide a Lions perspective. What is clear is that this pair of former All Blacks are very proud of their own involvement.

Robertson is treating this morning's visit very seriously, while Marshall spoke of his involvement against the Lions in 2005 as one of his career highlights. He mentioned what a regret it was for some of his esteemed colleagues like Jonah Lomu and Andrew Mehrtens that they never got to face the Lions because they only visit every 12 years.

The Lions can be hard to like because of their overly-slick commercial machine and they are being squeezed from every angle when it comes to their place in the game.

But what shines through in this passionate rugby country is that these tours are worth embracing and embellishing, because they are unique to the game and bring so much to places like Christchurch, Dunedin and Rotorua - the next three stops on the tour's itinerary.

Aside from the relentless 36 hours of incredible rain before the first game in Whangarei, the weather has been benign and the Kiwi welcome has been warm to match.

When myself and a colleague realised our accommodation for that game was actually in a rural enclave called Whangaruru, an hour up the windiest road this side of Slea Head, it could have been a bit of a disaster.

There are no restaurants in the vicinity, but the wonderful owners of the Whangaruru B&B put their evening on hold and rustled up a meal from their 'lifestyle farm' and sat down to dine with us.

Stunning When dawn came, jet-lag hadn't quite cleared, the stunning view revealed itself.

When it comes to scenery, it's becoming par for the course; this country delivers at every turn.

The rugby, as yet, is not going to plan for the northern hemisphere visitors but the locals know their stuff and are not ready to write the Lions off just yet. The local media are fully engaged, happy to lash into Warren Gatland at every turn and turn up the heat whenever the opportunity arises.

It feels like an event. It feels like a real tour. Everything is set up, ready for the rugby to deliver on the expectation and hype.

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