lions tour diary #one

IT’S BEEN A LIVELY START TO THE TEST END OF THE TOUR: HIGH TEAS AND CHAMPERS, A VERY SMALL POLICE CHASE, MEMORIES OF WAIKATO FIGHTING BARS, BREAKFAST WITH STEPHEN ‘TWO BEDS’ FERRIS AND FRENCH REFEREES WITH HOLIDAY HOMES IN SWANSEA. DON’T YOU JUST LOVE THE LIONS?

AUCKLAND – SATURDAY 17 JUNE 2017

Once upon a time you could be arraigned for arriving late on tour; those being the days when the Lions party was small enough to notice and generous enough to care. Certainly the sanction back in South Africa in 1997 – my debut Lions’ Tour – would have been two hefty shots of whisky in one giddy gulp but, now, you can slip into Auckland eighteen days late and no one bats an eyelid.

And in fairness, I had mitigations; roses to prune, paving stones to lay, a hot date with The Daughter and Julius Caesar in Stratford – proper swords and sandals stuff and a Cassius with a genuinely lean and hungry look – and, more importantly, The Son’s GCSEs. How would he manage The Carbon Cycle, simultaneous equations and the gothic imagery of ‘The Strange Tale of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde’ without the input of his fatuous father? The honest answer – in all probability – would’ve been ‘just fine, thank you very much’ but – polite boy that he is – he was happy to conspire in my delusions of usefulness.

So it was only once the revision guides had been ceremonially cremated on the newly-laid paving stones that I rolled into Heathrow clutching my ticket to New Zealand. Bizarrely, Gary Player was checking in at the desk next door and – even more bizarrely – sitting next door on the flight to Hong Kong. I toyed – briefly – with the idea of chatting him up but you sense famous people get sick to the back teeth of being polite to strangers, not least in in confined spaces.

And in truth, I’ve never quite reconciled myself to some of his more ludicrous quotes back in the sixties. Just because your first four major wins immediately elevate you to a select group of those who’ve won golf’s Grand Slam – back then, three, alongside Sarazen and Hogan; now, of course, five, alongside Sarazen, Hogan, Nicklaus and Woods – doesn’t excuse you from back-slapping an Apartheid regime that – quote – ‘maintains civilised values and standards amongst the alien barbarians.’ Maybe he’s since recanted – and I sincerely hope he has – but I didn’t bother asking.

In all, four breakfasts, three hours’ sleep and Paul Verhoeven’s ‘Elle’ – ‘a masterpiece of suave perversity’ according to ‘The New York Times’ – got me to Auckland where a sniffy lady at Border Control seemed reluctant to let me in, me being the enemy and she – ‘I’m a Cantabrian’ – still smarting from the Lions’ mauling of the Crusaders. ‘Well, that’s French referees for you,’ I said, shrugging my shoulders and – deviously, I thought – trying to deflect the blame. She glowered at me over her spectacles and – almost viciously – buried her stamp in my passport. I’d arrived by the skin of my teeth.

Our uptown Auckland hotel gave me a ninth floor view of the police station and a room so ridiculously spacious that, having put down my suitcase to admire the mini-bar, I couldn’t find it again to start unpacking. I rang home to find Mrs. Simmons – at that very moment – setting fire to the oven, yet another example of womankind’s effortless ability to multi-task; namely burning down the house and answering the phone at the same time. Truly, I am blessed to have married her.

The key – of course – to any first day in New Zealand is to stay awake until midnight and – fortunately – I had the Maori All Blacks against the Lions to watch from the far end of my boudoir, the first meeting of the red and the black on this tour. It was also the first time I’ve been struck by the similarity of South Africa’s Jaco Peyper to Bath’s Andy Robinson and indeed – now I stop to think about it – I’ve never seen the two of them together in the same room. Equally intriguing was the local television coverage and Kiwi commentator, Tony Johnson’s, insistence on referring to Maro Itoje as Maro Itodgy. To be honest, if it weren’t for the fact that ‘todgy’ sounds like an affectionate diminutive for ‘todger’, I think it might catch on.

The game itself was a good old-fashioned cuffing, 10-32 being all the more impressive given the Lions gifted the Maori their ten points courtesy of George’s gaffe and Maro’s mind-fart. By accident or by cunning design, the Lions seem to have found their Test turns without having to sweat too long on selection and the coming series is going to give us a classic contrast between an irresistible force and an immovable object. Or at least that’s what I would have thought had my jet-lagged body not been snoring loudly through the post-match interviews; poetic, really, given how many people – I am sure – have enjoyed sleeping through my own post-match interviews in years gone by.

AUCKLAND/HAMILTON – SUNDAY 18 JUNE 2017

You never actually beat New Zealand, do you? Even when you score more points than them, you’re still, essentially, a loser, hence Gregor Paul’s gloriously churlish view of last night’s game in this morning’s ‘New Zealand Herald’: ‘the Lions took rugby back a few decades in Rotorua,’ bitched Gregor. ‘There was no finesse or mystique about it …they rolled up their sleeves in the style of an officious hospital matron … and while it was a win for the Lions, it may not be so much a win for rugby. Romantics everywhere will be sobbing into their soup at the relentless, grinding nature of it all.’

In fairness, it can’t be easy knocking out a nuanced match report to a tight deadline, the more so when you’ve only got one eye. But forgive me, are we playing ‘how’ or ‘how many’ on this tour? That big black thing down the end of the ground, Gregor, no, up a bit, right there, can you see it? That’s the scoreboard and that’s how we measure who wins the game. Someone on the sports desk should have pointed that out to you by now.

To hear Kiwi journalists tell it, New Zealand is the only place in world rugby where you’ll see an offload or a try bonus point. Presumably no one down here has ever heard of Saracens, the Exeter Chiefs or the Scarlets, not an unfair assumption given that before the Lions arrived, 78% of Kiwis – supposedly – couldn’t name a single tourist. Blinded by the brilliance of the current All Blacks, the media here conveniently forgets the All Blacks team of, for example, 1959, who beat the Lions 18-17 in the First Test courtesy of six penalties to four tries and who lost the Fourth Test 6-9, two penalties to three tries. Yet New Zealand, supposedly, has forever been the golden child of rugby and Britain and Ireland the ugly, unloved bastard. Memories hereabouts can be woefully short.

Indeed New Zealand is one of the few countries that refutes the maxim about the public getting the press it deserves. Kiwis – by and large – are generous, warm-hearted, knowledgeable and open-minded folk. Kiwi journalists – by and large – are professional trolls. Perhaps, if the tourists really are such a godforsaken blight on the rugby landscape, the Lions should spare the New Zealand media the unremitting agony of having to write about them and simply drop the All Blacks from the rota; switch to, say, South Africa, Australia and Argentina on a four-year cycle and leave New Zealand rugby to find another bunch of tourists who – on the one hand – will bring in 20,000 visitors and a $100million boost for the economy – and on the other hand – won’t mind spending six straight weeks walking through a hurricane of piss.

The Lions being in Hamilton and me being in Auckland looked – initially – as though it might make the day awkward; Rory Best was due on the coconut shy this evening and the powers-that-be in London – understandably – were expecting to hear from him. So it was a swift drive south or, more accurately, a sedate drive south given 100kph is as fast a speed as New Zealand tolerates; 100kph, of course, being roughly ‘la vitesse’ at which a Parisian parallel parks his Renault. I mentioned this to The Son and Heir in tonight’s family, Father’s Day phone call. ‘100kph?’ he squawked. ‘Dad, that’s only 62.5mph.’ Either his calculator was right next to the phone or his GCSE Maths result is going to be much, much better than any of us is expecting.

And no question, 100kph does give you a chance to drink in the scenery, generally a peerless feature of New Zealand but – I’m trying not to be rude – perhaps less so on the road from Auckland to Waikato. Jammed between a grey river and a brown railway, Huntly is a no-nonsense mining town – rugby league country and a good a place to shop for a pick axe, a pick-up and a tattoo – where, years back, Stuart Barnes and Miles Harrison were reputedly chased out of a ‘fighting bar’ in a flurry of beermats and broken glass. Stuart tells it differently, of course, but a plaque just outside the door reputedly marks the point at which he dropped to his knees and begged for mercy. He does, after all, bruise like a peach.

The Lions news conference this evening was a sweaty affair, partly because tempers seem a little frayed after Warren Gatland ‘cheapened the badge’ with his stop-gap reinforcements from Wales and Scotland and partly because one too many perspiring journalists were jammed into a room with one too few open windows. It’s intriguing how the setting of a news conference can often set the tone for the ensuing exchanges; spacious, air-conditioned conference halls with a bit of mingle room, a potted plant and plates of ginger nut biscuits generally making for a cordial knockabout; stuffy meeting rooms, where there are too many elbows, not enough chairs and where latecomers end up tripping over camera cases, generally making for a rather tetchier atmosphere. This one – certainly – was no one’s idea of a laugh-in.

But at least there was Rory Best, a man who, across the years, has made a fabulous fist of – simultaneously – wearing both the most famous forename and the most famous surname in Northern Irish sport. Crabby, cynical hacks such as myself – bad breath, ugly shoes – are trained to show neither fear nor favour in interviews but Rory’s candour and intelligence has long since made him one of my favourite conversations. I’ve no idea what he makes of me – bad breath, ugly shoes, probably – but talking to him has always been an unalloyed pleasure.

And the more so since he’s just been crowned with an OBE, which gave us plenty of room for manoeuvre. Joe Marler’s now carrying his bags everywhere, James Haskell is piping him aboard the team bus and the Daddy’s Day link up with his three kids gave them even more to celebrate. The youngest – Ritchie – was apparently holding up a Mars bar in his father’s honour. No one was quite sure why.

I was chased back up the Waikato Expressway this evening by a wailing, twinkling police car, who – just as I thought he was moving in for the kill – veered off-piste and disappeared down a slip road. From that point on, it was a rigid 62.5 mph all the way back to Auckland.

AUCKLAND/HAMILTON – MONDAY 19 JUNE 2017

TV’s Stephen Ferris was at breakfast in the hotel this morning. I’m not sure why I seem to be bumping into nothing but Ulstermen on this tour but I suppose if you were to draw a Venn Diagram of the British and Irish Lions, Ulster would be where the circles conjoin, so perhaps it’s not surprising there’s so many of the buggers milling about here in New Zealand.

Normally I’d avoid breakfast with the likes of Ferris since, fresh from the gym, he looks like a condom full of walnuts and, fresh from my dribble-soaked pillow, I look like a sad sack of spuds, a comparison which is as obvious as it is invidious. Certainly the ‘top-up girls’ circling the tables were noticeably more attentive to his flagging cup of coffee than they were to mine. But then Stevie’s as engaging a yarn as you’ll meet – so he is – thus did I forgive him the fact that he ate the entire buffet while I was still toying with a melon slice.

Kicking practice with Dan Biggar and an interview afterwards was today’s promise, which meant another three-hour round trip to Hamilton; blue skies to match the blue-collar scenery and a brilliant journey in that sharp, winter sunshine that New Zealand does so beautifully. Conversely, my earliest memory of the Waikato Stadium was in June 1998 when England lost 18-10 to New Zealand ‘A’ and the rain came down all evening like six-inch nails. Twenty years on and there are nether parts of me that still haven’t quite dried out.

Paul Stridgeon, the Lions’ Strength and Conditioning guru, was pitch-side as the kickers did their stuff; as ever, tail wagging in time with his tongue. The Energizer Bunny’s now finished at RC Toulon but says he’ll be staying on the Cote D’Azur and commuting to his new job with Wales – the glorious idiot – in much the same way as Warren Gatland – reputedly – flies to and from Cardiff and the Bay of Islands Monday to Friday.

‘I’ve told Warren we’re going to win the series 3-0’, said rugby’s great optimist, ‘I can just feel it in me bones.’ He eyed me with a smirk, almost daring me to disagree, so I offered him a raised eyebrow – which he politely ignored – and a friendly wager with a stake of his choosing – which he eagerly accepted. ‘A decent bottle of wine, how’s about that?’ he said, which gave me a small pause for thought, him having spent three years on the Boudjelall payroll and me on my meagre, Sky stipend which – wine-wise – doesn’t generally stretch much further than a bargain basket Pinot Grigio. ‘How much is a decent bottle of wine, then?’ I said, genuinely puzzled. Wigan’s last Frenchman gave me a Gallic shrug. ‘Thirty quid?’ he said. Thirty quid? Jesus, Brodie Retallick’d better have his game-face on this next fortnight or that’s half the housekeeping gone.

Dan Biggar arrived for his natter; sandals, bits of sticking plaster and – like ‘Bobby’ Stridgeon – hail-fellow-well-met. He tells me Leigh Halfpenny’s only missed two kicks in training since the tour started and that he’s rooming with Dan Cole – Dan to Dan – whom, much to his very pleasant surprise, he’s enjoying hugely. And why wouldn’t you? Coley is man who eats porridge before home games and spaghetti before away games and who reads endless volumes of Noam Chomsky, philosopher, linguist and cognitive scientist, who once wrote that ‘the intellectual tradition is one of servility to power.’ Props are a species unto themselves.

So we talked kicking and getting selected for the one Lions game no Lion wants to be selected for given it’s the midweek match in First Test week and how Rory Best has been beating the badge and insisting his dirt-trackers – in the nicest possible way – run out against Chiefs tomorrow evening grimly determined to make Warren Gatland look like a berk. And doubtless if they do, no one would be more pleased about that than Gatland himself.

Determined to beat the boredom of the ‘soi-disant’ Waikato Expressway on the way back to the Big City, I stuck ‘Highway to Hell’ on repeat and listened to it thirty-four times. In truth that was a few more spins than I’d bargained for but the traffic heading back into Auckland was filthy. Kieran the Cameraman’s finally checked in to the tour so he and I toasted his arrival this evening; bleary as a baked potato, he landed at 0530 this morning and has been tottering around town all day trying desperately to stay awake and not bump into the traffic. He has a ready smile, an eagle eye and no unpleasant body odours; all in all, the perfect cameraman.

AUCKLAND/HAMILTON TUESDAY 20 JUNE 2017

My phone was dead this morning; diligently left on charge all night it resolutely refused to wake up until I got to breakfast whereupon Kieran – gadget monkey – somehow reset it. I suppose if one of us – me or the phone – had to die during the night, I’d rather it was the phone but, even so, it’s been banished to the bathroom and I’m not talking to it, unless of course it rings.

Breakfast was a banquet – the first rule of touring being always fill up in the mornings given it may be the only meal you get – and this afternoon it was back down the Expressway to Waikato for this evening’s game with the Chiefs, this time with Stevie and Kieran along for the ride. Stevie says his room has two double beds in it and he’s already slept in both, which I thought a needless extravagance and which he thought to be fair enough given he’d paid for them. For his part, Kieran said that back in his semi-professional football days – Hastings Town – he used to be called K-dog and he’d hated it, a very, very silly admission to make at the beginning of a claustrophobic three weeks.

Car journeys on tour are always a hoot, assuming – as today – you’ve got good people to spitball with and you ban all talk of rugby. Back on the last Lions tour of New Zealand in 2005, Stuart Barnes and I spent the Test Series driving from Dunedin to Christchurch to Wellington to Auckland in Sunday chunks and it remains the only part of that bloated crusade I recall with any fondness; the exception being our crossing of the Cook Straits where a five-metre swell left me hanging onto the funnel while Seadog Barnes rolled around the upper decks with a chilled glass of Sauvignon.

Upstairs in the Board Room of the Waikato Stadium, ‘Sky Sport New Zealand’ had laid on pumpkins and a braised shoulder of lamb which I tried – unsuccessfully – to get to before Stevie Ferris. Pitch-side, I bumped into Tadhg Furlong – the honorary Irishman in the Saracens front five who, even now three weeks in, looks like a kid who’s just discovered Christmas. He says his Mum and Dad – Margaret and James – will be arriving next week once school‘s out for Margaret and that tomorrow’s the players’ first day off on the tour; apparently he’s going to barricade himself inside his room and refuse to come out.

My only mistake of the evening was to side-five CJ Stander as he ran out for the second half, this – presumably – being very few seconds after he’d topped up the carpet glue he rubs onto his hands in the dressing room. If you’ve ever wondered why CJ never drops the ball and never passes, now you know. Indeed once the post-match interviews were wrapped up, it took two sound engineers five minutes to prise the microphone out of my right hand.

It was an unforgettable evening for any number of ‘unloved’ Lions whose hard work and application had finally been rewarded with a thumping win over the Chiefs; in truth, too many of them to mention. And while you suspect that few – if any – will make the cut for Eden Park on Saturday, many more than a few will still have a major part to play in this series. Put it this way, four years ago in the corresponding game against the Brumbies, eleven of that team figured in the Second and Third Tests, indeed Dan Lydiate and Alex Corbisiero started both.

And on that theme, tonight was the sweetest redemption for Rory Best OBE who, back in Canberra four years ago, skippered the boat against the Brumbies and watched it sink. ‘We talked about channeling it…[the frustration]…and I said to the boys, if you let this one slip by you’ll regret it,’ he said afterwards, breathless but beaming, ‘I know I personally regretted four years ago, so I couldn’t be prouder of this bunch of guys who picked themselves up and showed what it means to be a part of this group.’

By now, a jet-lagged and almost tottering Stephen ‘Two Beds’ Ferris needed a long lie down and a feed and not necessarily in that order. Interestingly, his yawns were just wide enough to fit around a quarter-pounder with cheese, so we headed for the Hamilton strip and some fast food. Back at the hotel in Auckland, all that was open was the mini-bar. Rarely has a five pound bottle of beer tasted quite so refreshing.

AUCKLAND – WEDNESDAY 21 JUNE 2017

Richard Loe – erstwhile All Black prop, thug, eye gouger and, back in the day, a truly great rugby recidivist – now has a column in ‘The New Zealand Herald’. You should read it. It’s very funny. This morning, for example, he’d written about the Lions’ win against the Chiefs last night (try-bonus point, shutout, twenty-eight point margin) in a piece snappily entitled – and I quote word for word – ‘Tourists Can Play A Bit But It Can Be Hard Watch.’ Presumably, it was the sub-editor’s night off.

Anyway, sentence one talks about the Lions style: ‘gee, they can play negatively’, a point hammered home in sentence two where he describes the tourists as ‘dire’. He then moves on to bag referee Jerome Garces for being ‘awful’ – ‘he must have a holiday home in somewhere like Swansea’ – before lamenting how cruel it was that the Chiefs were missing ‘so many frontline players’. There was a bit further down where he also got stuck into the Lions for ‘making noises’ to disrupt the Chiefs’ line-out calls but, to be honest, I was welling up so badly by this stage, I couldn’t finish the rest of it.

To the best of my knowledge, no one has used the word ‘gee’ in public since Doris Day played ‘Calamity Jane’ in 1953. A Frenchman with a holiday home in ‘somewhere like Swansea’? What, Morriston, maybe? Well, it’s possible; after all, Romain Poite – as we all know – has a small Thames-side pied-a-terre just outside Tilbury. And as for the line-outs, for Christ’s sake, Warren, will you get a grip of your forwards and tell them to button it when Codie Taylor’s throwing the ball in on Saturday? You’re annoying Richard Loe and he used to play in the same Christchurch Boys’ High School team as Steve Hansen, so word will get back.

We’ve moved hotels this morning as our disparate clans descend upon the City of Sails ahead of the First Test; the Hamilton Hotel Mob, the Hamilton Motel Mob (snore too loudly and the bathroom door falls down) and the Aucklandeers; Stevie Fez, K-dog and yours truly. SQ and the Fan Van remain at large – we know not where – but wherever the Scarlet Pimpernel may be, let’s just hope and pray he’s downwind.

So we’re now on Symonds Street – poetic – in a hotel several stops above my pay grade, one of the many great benefits of being on the same team as Sean Fitzpatrick. The concierge is in Victorian fancy dress; the rooftop, saltwater outdoor pool is a year-round twenty-seven degrees and the sunken salon serves a Wedgwood High Tea on triple-decker cake stands at $58 per person, $89 per person if you throw in a glass of Louis Roederer Rose Premier NV Champagne and $100 if you want the whole shebang on the weekend rather than the working week. While I waited for my room to be steam-cleaned – I have stringent hygiene criteria – a woman dressed as Little Bo Peep sat eating petit fours and cucumber sandwiches the size and shape of Dairylea slices. And if she’d valet-parked her sheep, I reckon she’d have been looking at a bill of around a thousand NZD.

Stevie (Ferris) was off for lunch with Seanie (O’Brien), K-dog was shooting something all afternoon at Eden Park, so I hunkered down with the laptop to crunch my Lions numbers post last night in Hamilton and ahead of the weekend. Statistics don’t tell you everything – by any stretch of the imagination – but they’re hard to argue with during interviews so it’s useful to keep a few under your hat for emergencies, a bit like Paddington Bear’s marmalade sandwiches.

So, for what it’s worth, 42% of the points the Lions have conceded on tour so far have come in the second quarter and 41% of the points they’ve scored have come in the third, a period in which they’ve yet to concede a try. Indeed their points difference in the third quarter (+47) is four times better than the other three quarters combined. Intriguingly, of the eleven tries they’ve scored, only one has come in the final quarter (9.09%), a figure which might yet come back to haunt them on Saturday given the All Blacks last year scored just under 30% of their tries during the final furlong.

Leigh Halfpenny has the most points 33 (he was the top points scorer in 2013 with 114) and he’s yet to miss a shot (8/8). Taulupe Faletau and Ben Te’o have made the most starts (3) but CJ Stander has played the most minutes (265), trucked up the most carries (63) and made the most tackles (40). The poor bugger needs a weekend off and – oddly – will probably get one this very weekend. Ben Te’o has made the ‘cleanest’ breaks (8) and beaten the most defenders (14). He will certainly not be having a weekend off.

Four different players have started at full back (Hogg, Payne, Halfpenny and Williams) and four more have started on the left wing (Williams, Seymour, Daly and North). 43% of turnovers have come from dropped balls and of those turnovers, the back three has made the most (23) while – elsewhere – the props concede the most penalties (13) and the second rows miss the most tackles (16). At the line out, Jamie George is top of the pops with 95%, George Kruis has the most line-out wins (13) and Courtney Lawes the most steals (2). 86% of the throws go to the front or to the middle, which, to my mind, is a worryingly conservative figure.

You wonder, though, how many of these numbers will have been bandied about in the coaches’ selection meeting this morning or to what extent does Gats ignore the Stats and go with his gut? Ah, the alchemy of selection. This is where Warren Gatland will truly earn his corn.

21 JUNE 2017

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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