Wednesday 17 January 2018

Special tour lives up to all the hype

Lions supporter Roisin Mullan, from Myshall, Co Carlow, takes a photograph with Sonny Bill Williams after the Auckland Blues victory against the tourists at Eden Park. Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Lions supporter Roisin Mullan, from Myshall, Co Carlow, takes a photograph with Sonny Bill Williams after the Auckland Blues victory against the tourists at Eden Park. Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

It is easy, particularly when experienced through the prism of Sky Sports' hyperbole, to dismiss the Lions. As a concept it is archaic and out of sync with the modern game; it is squeezed on the schedule and increasingly difficult to pull together from an administrative and coaching point of view.

The rampant commercialism associated with it can be a major turn-off. Even the official partners seem to have official partners.

Irish Independent rugby correspondent Ruaidhri O’Connor aboard the America’s Cup winning boat.
Irish Independent rugby correspondent Ruaidhri O’Connor aboard the America’s Cup winning boat.

Yet the experience of following the tour up and down the length and breadth of this breath-taking country over the course of the last six weeks has only reinforced how special the Lions is.

It is one of rugby's unique show-pieces. Those who wish to destroy it would be responsible for an act of sporting sabotage.

There are concerns around player welfare, but ask the squad and you'll find few among them who would swap the experience for a summer tour with their country or a few more outings with their club.

The World Cup aside, nothing in rugby matches this event for scale and significance; the big-match feel of the Tests is unsurpassed. For the legion of red-clad fans who have invaded New Zealand, it has been the experience of a life-time.

Sunset in Dunedin.
Sunset in Dunedin.


They are all fans of clubs and national teams who will be energised by the experience; this is a tide that will lift all of rugby's boats when it comes to season ticket time.

Although those tuning in to matches twice a week might be forgiven for thinking that it has done nothing but rain in the Land of the Long White Cloud for six weeks, there has been a weird trend through the tour where the heavens have opened on match-days but by and large it has been dry for the rest of the time.

The local economy has been boosted hugely from the influx of winter tourists: the 'No Vacancy' signs were out in force in Queenstown all week and the bars and restaurants did a roaring trade up and down the country.

And what a country it is. The All Blacks are the flag-bearers for this pair of islands buried deep in the south Pacific, but there is so much more to this nation than their rugby team.

The set at Hobbiton, where much of Lord of the Rings was filmed.
The set at Hobbiton, where much of Lord of the Rings was filmed.

For all of the talk of hostility that comes with touring here, the welcome has been warm everywhere the Lions have travelled. The local lexicon is endearing as men refer to others endearingly as 'good jokers', 'good buggers' and 'complicated roosters'. We've yet to meet a 'bad joker'.

The Lions have covered some amount of ground from Waitangi near the top of the North Island to Dunedin right down by the Antarctic.

The student town on the southern coast produced some of the most memorable experiences, from spending time with the five League of Ireland exiles far away from home to meeting Dave Kernahan, the king of the steepest street in the world.

After striking up a conversation with an Irish journalist, the local legend - who has raced Jonah Lomu and Thierry Dusautoir up the 350m incline at Baldwin St but has since hung up his running shoes - jumped in a car and took us tearing up a country road to get the best view

Along the way, we passed a farm belonging to Dave's mate - a man whose work-rate is as legendary as his inability to hold down a wife.

The friend holds a one-day-a-week licence to kill animals and Dave is often called upon to help out and lend his expertise from a lifetime working in slaughterhouses in Brisbane and Dunedin; an experience that cost him two fingers.

As we approached the dilapidated collection of out-houses we began to fear our fate might lie with the animals, but thankfully Dave didn't suggest pulling in and we made it to the top of the mountains unscathed.

The view was stunning and Dave, it turned out, was a 'good joker' and had no interest in murdering us, which was a relief.

His hospitality was repeated throughout the tour. Sumner RFC welcomed us on board for a game back in Christchurch and its most famous son, former All Black and current Crusaders coach Scott Robertson, was giving of his time as he showed us around his home town.

In Wellington, Jason Holland and John Plumtree were only too happy to chat; the environments at the Super Rugby franchises are just that bit less stuffy and more relaxed than what we're used to at home.

Covering the tour has involved 41 nights away from home, 14 flights, a couple of decent road-trips and 12 different hotel, AirBnB or motel beds.

It's been a never-ending flux of match reports, team announcements, previews, transcriptions, early mornings, late nights and everything in between. Sleep has been at a premium.

The time difference has allowed some time in between deadlines to take a break, and New Zealand tourism has rolled out the red carpet to the travelling media, offering everything from trips to visit the set at Hobbiton to a raft of on-the-water activities - if you'll pardon pun - which concluded with a trip on an America's Cup boat around Auckland Harbour yesterday.

The food has been good, the coffee better and there might even have been time for a glass or two of Central Otago Pinot Noir or Wellington craft beers here and there.

The views, up and down the country, have been stunning, with Queenstown offering the pick of the bunch in the past week.

The New Zealand media team have laid on the hospitality too, and logistically the tour has gone off like clockwork, putting their experience of hosting the 2011 World Cup to good use.

All the while, the rugby has rumbled on twice a week providing memorable occasions and belting games.

Sure, the jet-lagged opener, the Chiefs match and the Maori encounter fell a bit flat; but the noise levels in Eden Park when the Blues mustered a stunning try to beat the Lions got the whole thing going and the big-match feel and performance when the Test team emerged against the Crusaders was a big moment.

Yes, the wars of words between the coaches, the partisan coverage from the New Zealand Herald and the whingeing from both sides have worn thin at times, but the Tests have each been epic in their own way and whatever happens this morning the series has done the Lions the world of good.

The players are desperate to play, the fans will pay an arm and a leg and the locals love having them.

If the English club owners are allowed to ruin this special event in the name of a few more Premiership matches it would be a sporting travesty.

The good-will must be harnessed as the Lions, their fans and the increasingly dishevelled media pack bid farewell to New Zealand, to the roosters both complicated and uncomplicated, the jokers good and bad.

They've all made their mark on an unforgettable trip but it's almost time for home.

Just one more Test match first before the plane leaves.

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