lions tour diary #two

WHO ALWAYS STEALS PETER O’MAHONY’S KNIFE AND FORK AT DINNER; IS THERE ANYTHING IN WORLD RUGBY FASTER THAN THE WAGS’ GRAPEVINE;  WHAT CAN YOU READ INTO STEVE HANSEN’S BODY LANGUAGE AND HOW CAN YOU LOOK LIKE SBW FOR JUST NZ$40? IT’S BEEN A BUSY COUPLE OF DAYS.

AUCKLAND – THURSDAY 22 JUNE 2017

Yesterday, from my third-floor hotel window, I had a commanding view of – in no particular order – the ‘Bestia’ Kebab Shop in City Road, a gormless office block and the last fifty metres of the Auckland Sky Tower. This morning, I still have the kebab shop and the office block but the Sky Tower has been swallowed up by the sweeping rain and the louring cloud; proof, if ‘twere needed, that (a) God is a Lion and that (b) spending time in New Zealand is like standing underneath an elephant; sooner or later, you’re going to get wet.

Had I been more of a patriot, I’d have set the alarm for the – big breath – Lions First Test Team Text Update at seven sharp this morning but ugly buggers need their beauty sleep and – besides – rolling over at eight thirty and flipping through the twenty-three didn’t appear to make too much difference. As ever with Gatland it’s a selection that’s wrong-footed a few – coaches hate to be thought predictable – and, more than that, it’s a typically ballsy call, not least for a back three who’ve yet to play together on tour.

Second row selection was always going to be a bun-fight and I’ll take my pound to your penny that Maro Itoje is steaming about being a bench boy. But then Courtney Lawes hasn’t put a foot wrong and, after a first outing that only his mother would’ve loved, Ian Henderson has been a force of nature. Indeed, if you’re talking fours and fives, no one has made more tackles, carries or metres than he has; he’s also the second row who’s beaten the most defenders, made the most clean breaks and conceded the fewest turnovers, the cherry on the top being that he’s yet to miss a tackle. So to the extent that anyone, anywhere would give a toss what I think, Itoje to start and Henderson to come on would’ve been my call.

The Lions were taking questions at the North Harbour Stadium at lunchtime, one of those gatherings where Her Majesty’s Press become life’s livestock; corralled against a fence in the teeming rain, driven through the gate in a crocodile of cameras, herded into a briefing room to await the audience with the management and – thence – penned in pitch-side for a short squirt of warm-ups. So when you hear journalists bleating like sheep, it’s often with good reason.

Warren Gatland rolled in to the news conference wearing his game face and a white polo shirt; Peter O’Mahony behind him looking as though he’d rather have been having his ears syringed than juggling sound-bites for the benefit of the media circus. Intensely private, PO’M is a man for actions rather than words – that’s not to say he hasn’t the words but he’d rather share them in private – and having greatness thrust upon him sits very uncomfortably. Yet after Tom Kiernan in 1968, he’s the second alumnus of Presentation Brothers College, Cork to captain the Lions in a test. ‘Viriliter Age’ is the school motto – ‘act manly’ – a maxim O’Mahony has not only taken to heart but tattooed under his eyelids.

Gatland didn’t give much away to the media mob. The traditional, opening long hop turned out to be a very decent yorker – ‘Warren, you said on Tuesday that Liam Williams’ best position was wing; why have you picked him at full back?’ – which he did well to dig out of the block hole but thereafter, he never looked in trouble and actually played a few shots. The ‘B’ word got a good airing; indeed, ‘bold’, as in ‘we have to be bold’, cropped up four times, although without Gatland defining, or being asked to define, precisely what it  meant. Which is good, because there’s the first question to toss his way on ‘Sky Sports’ on Saturday evening.

Peter did us a brief turn; he’d rung Mrs. O’Mahony to put her in the picture vis-à-vis the skipper-ship only to find she already knew – the speed of light has nothing on the WAGS’ grapevine – but that was about the only tit-bit he was offering. ‘Will you call heads or tails on Saturday?’ I said. He smiled. ‘I think I’ll keep that one to myself.’ Now that’s Peter O’Mahony for you in a nutshell. Even the unimportant stuff is important.

Sean O’Brien was our other interview, fresh from yesterday’s lunch with Stevie ‘Two Beds’ Ferris at the end of which – according to Seanie – Seanie picked up the tab. As ever he was very good value – half of Tullow is out here rooting for him, nieces, nephews, family and friends, quite possibly all at Sean’s expense – and once K-dog was rolling, he was forthright, funny and full of one-liners, not least about Captain O’Mahony.

‘No, I’ll be giving him the abuse I always give him,’ he said of the eleventh Irish Lions’ captain, ’I’m a menace in Pete’s world; prodding him, poking him, messing with him, hiding his knife and fork at dinner. Small things. He’ll try to throttle me as usual, that’s his signature move but no we’re great buddies and it’s a great honour for him, fully deserved. He’s a fantastic player and a fantastic leader.’

As the week has gone on, you can almost sense the coming crescendo. I bumped into Lions’ Chief Executive, John Feehan – and his daughter, Ruth – who confessed that the knot in his stomach was already tightening two days ahead of kick off. And indeed, all of a sudden there are queues for the hotel lifts; the fire dancers, samba drummers and – we’re promised – drag queens are marshaling downtown at Queen’s Wharf and the Irish bars are stocking up for a siege. ‘Danny Doolan’s’ have ordered in 120 extra kegs just for Saturday – ‘mate, it’s going to be insane’ said manager, Colin McGuire.

Hopefully folk’ll behave, although the Lions’ Manager, John Spencer, was on the wrong end of a drunken rant during a dinner date with his wife and a friend at ‘The Depot’ last night; an abusive Kiwi – reportedly – shoving the 69 year-old and the 69 year-old and 1971 Lions’ tourist – fair play – shoving him right back. In the team room – so we hear – he’s now known as ‘Rocky’.

In the real world, my mother is having a shocker at Royal Ascot. She’s not actually there, you understand, but she generally has sixpence on anything trained by Aidan O’Brien and so far, she’s half a crown down. On top of which, The Daughter is back from university, the car wheezing up the M5 weighed down with tat like some refugee fleeing a war zone. Apparently it took forever for the rest of the family to unload it and The Son is now demanding ‘porterage’. He’s been told to take it up with his Mother.

AUCKLAND – FRIDAY 23 JUNE 2017

New Zealand’s gaze is both here and there at the moment; mostly there, given that this morning’s front pages on the eve of the First Lions’ Test led with the America’s Cup. And if the Auld Mug is still New Zealand’s headline news on Sunday morning, the Lions will – doubtless – be celebrating a rather famous victory.

Miles Harrison – ‘the voice of rugby’ – and I chewed it all over this morning amid all the red shirts at a blushing breakfast. Clearly the Lions have to control the scoreboard and – you’d imagine – they’re going to need, at the very least, a couple of tries and a fistful of penalties to knock over the Kiwis. The question, I suppose, is whether Gatland’s attempt to find a counter-attack and some width – Daly, Williams, Watson – potentially exposes him too much in areas he least wants to get caught short. Has he overreached himself? Clearly, he’s taking a risk, given it’s a novice combination.

The other feeling that’s difficult to shake off is the old chestnut about the Lions ‘having to win the First Test’; in the sense that it just doesn’t seem to apply this time around. The tourists’ learning curve is almost vertical given the rate at which they’ve improved from game to game; so much so that, if they can project that through the remaining four matches, they’ll be hitting their peak in Tests Two and Three. They have – perhaps – even more headroom than the All Blacks and, unlike 2001, injuries won’t be a concern, not with the depth the Lions can offer. Let’s face it, there are some serious players in this squad who aren’t even lacing up their boots this weekend.

The City of Sails remains the City of Umbrellas; indeed at Rob Howley’s lunchtime news conference on the fourteenth floor of the Lions’ team hotel, Howler was the only view on offer. I’ve always had a lot of time for Robert, despite the fact that he never misses an episode of ‘Neighbours’, the one thing – as far as I know – that he has in common with Mrs. Simmons. When he first came up to London to join Wasps in 2002, he stayed at Heston Services on the M4; thereby maximizing his proximity to the Insects training ground and his ease of access back to the family in Wales. How can you not love a man with priorities as grounded as that?

Rob had – clearly – come to meet the media armed with some facts and figures; ‘we’ve not conceded a try in the second half of the last two games … we’ve been held up on the line eight times on this tour … the All Blacks kick the ball 28-32 times a game and we need a counter-attack’. But yesterday, at North Harbour, when Warren Gatland was asked, ‘are you ready for this game?’ the Head Coach had shouldered arms. Asked the same question today, Howler had no hesitation: ‘we are where we want to be’.

A year ago, during the Wales tour of New Zealand, the two coaching teams – Hansen, Gatland, Foster, Howley et al – had a Friday night dinner date to chew the fat. Out by the lifts waiting to go to ground, I asked Rob whether they’d be doing the same this year. Apparently not, although he says the Lions will happily extend a dinner invitation ahead of the Third Test – their treat – if they go 2-0 up.

What was also interesting was Rob’s assessment on Steve Hansen’s past fortnight in the media. ‘I’ve never heard him offer quite so many sound-bites to the press,’ he said. And you wonder whether that’s a reflection of the Eddie Jones era we all now live in or whether Hansen’s – genuinely – feeling a little threatened.

Intriguingly, a New Zealand website applied some psychological techniques to Steve Hansen’s news conference yesterday; anything to try to get an inside line on a man who’s – generally – about ‘as readable as James Joyce’. What was most interesting – apparently – was his reaction to being asked about Kieran Read’s fitness; ‘he crossed his arms across his body and started scratching his left elbow; a dead giveaway’ according to the Body Language experts.

What you have to like about Hansen, though, is his eye contact. He never answers a question until he’s scanned the audience to find the journalist who’s asked it, although when button-holed about the importance of winning the opening test he – apparently – did ‘the triple crown’ – an eyelid tweak, a hand jiggle and a blowing out of the lips, all of which – supposedly – suggests nervousness. To be honest, I don’t buy it. Here’s a man who celebrates his team’s tries – not by clapping – but by punching his right fist into his left palm. Would you play poker against him? Possibly, but not with your own money.

A NZ$20 cab ride whisked me from the Lions Hotel to the New Zealand Captain’s Run at Eden Park where I’d been told to report to Gate J, Gate J then telling me to go to Gate E and Gate E shaking its head and pointing me back in the direction of Gate J. Thus do journalists keep trim and do stewards gain some measure of malicious enjoyment from an otherwise tedious occupation.

Watching New Zealand loosening up at Eden Park is like watching Picasso doodling in his Paris attic. What you always wonder about the All Blacks is whether they’d be quite so intimidating were they – for example – the All Blues, as indeed they were up until 1888. Today they were frolicking about in their orange training shirts and – frankly – looking nothing like as fearsome as when they paint it black. Again, the psychology of these things is fascinating.

‘Gentleman’ Jim Hamilton and Andy ’The Bear’ Goode were pitch-side, the two of them out here on behalf of something called ‘The Rugby Pod’. ‘To be honest, I’m struggling’ said The Bear, ‘given the jet-lag’s waking me up at four and I’m only getting back from the bar at three.’ Jim Hamilton is sporting a SBW haircut – by accident rather than design – given he stopped off at a Ponsonby hairdressers to be told that this was SBW’s local and that a lookalike trim would be a snip – or more accurately several snips – at a mere NZ$40. I think – on balance – SBW wears it slightly better.

The captain did a brief news conference in what, in summer in the garden of Eden Park, is an indoor cricket net and, in winter, a media centre. ‘Has your broken thumb recovered enough to be able to shake hands with referee, Jaco Peyper?’ was question number one. Read looked a little bemused, understandably given he’s just been selected to play eighty minutes of ‘footie’ against the Lions. The assumption – surely – would have to be that all of him is in full working order.

Read seems a very decent man, nimble enough to dodge the curveballs and polite enough not to be rude about the daisy-cutters. But, again like everyone else, he gave little away: ‘the set-piece is crucial … territory is everything … you have to put your body on the line longer than they do.’ To be honest, my mind was elsewhere, namely trying to work out which actor Read reminds me of? It was ten minutes before the penny finally dropped. Ralph Fiennes. He’s the deadest of dead ringers.

23 JUNE 2017

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