CEZANNE AND SCOTT QUINNELL, ALL BLACK ‘WARRENBALL’, THE LONELY ROAD TO WELLINGTON, LEGO WITH JACK AND GEORGE, HENDERSON THE PENKNIFE AND, NOT FOR THE SQUEAMISH, TWENTY YEARS OF SEX ON TOUR WITH MILES HARRISON; IT’S BEEN A HECTIC THREE DAYS.
AUCKLAND – SATURDAY 24 JUNE 2017
I was fishing for some poached eggs at the breakfast buffet this morning when an inky arm grasped me round the neck in an affectionate squeeze. Bear of a man that he is, I’ve never understood how Scott Quinnell still manages to creep up on your blindside totally unawares. I suspect he may be descended from a long line of Navajo hunters on his mother’s side.
His holiday out here is – clearly – exhausting him. This week he was out in the Tasman doing a shift on a racing yacht when the boat tipped mid-jibe, he lost his footing and – legs akimbo – caught one clean in the grinders; balls bouncing clean off his diaphragm and his voice – even now – an octave higher than it was on Tuesday. ‘The trouble is I have very large testicles,’ said SQ, matter-of-factly. ‘One’s a duck egg, the other’s an avocado. Perfect for a salad but not much else.’ It was a Cezannesque image that I struggled to shift from my mind for the entire day.
(Scott Quinnell and I – to back-track for a brief moment – was love at first sight. This is me speaking for me, by the way: I’ve no idea whether my feelings are requited. But then Scott Quinnell and most people is love at first sight. He’s as infectious as a good sneeze and, as I discovered, stronger than six acres of onions. Twelve years since, at the fag-end of the 2005 Lions’ Tour, we went out for a drink and ended up in a bar bulging with Lions’ supporters. Not wishing to lose me – so he said – he simply picked me up, stuck me on his shoulder and waded to the bar. I spent twenty minutes sitting there like a parrot before he finally unclamped his arm from my legs and put me down. And I have never been anyone’s idea of a skinny latte.)
Test Match Saturday is always a tense affair and, as the witching hour approaches, your nervous energy seeks refuge in the mindless and the mundane. Thus, two hours before kick-off at Eden Park, were we sitting in the bowels of the stadium discussing how many pairs of socks you should bring on a Lions’ Tour. K-Dog has nine, Miles Harrison – a ludicrous – fourteen, Producer Luke Rosier has seven but he’s lost two pairs – don’t ask – and I’ve brought five which, for some reason, was deemed to reflect poorly on my standards of personal hygiene. But New Zealand does have running water and washing powder – I know this because I’ve been here before – and lugging superfluous pairs of socks and grollies around the North Island leaves your arms looking like last week’s spaghetti. But I was outvoted and – for fully ten minutes – ostracised. To be honest, the peace and the punctuation was a relief.
Eden Park was sizzling. The New Zealand Army Band was out on the pitch offering some pre-match oompah when, suddenly they downed trumpets, formed a circle and – in full dress uniform – started haka-ing. It was genuinely terrifying. Jerome Kaino doing a ‘Ka Mate’ I can handle – it’s a laxative, no question, yet it has an obvious context – but a portly trombonist in a ‘lemon squeezer’ bush-hat, dress baggies, a braided tunic and white gloves suddenly breaking into ‘Kapa o Pango’ was truly startling, a surreal sight on what was to prove the most surreal of evenings.
In case you missed it, the Lions lost; not a large surprise given they were putting up pyramids in Egypt the last time the All Blacks went down at Eden Park. What was a little surprising was watching the Men in Red going end to end like the Harlem Globetrotters while the Men in Black played Warrenball and, to some extent, hoisted Gatland by his own petard. It was almost a small compliment, not that the Lions’ Head Coach seemed unduly flattered.
Pitch-side the game is always a blur – like staring out of the window on a long train journey – and afterwards it’s often the little things that stick in your mind, not least why does SBW always wear kit that’s a size too small for him? Beauden Barrett had a Midas match – he has hands like flypaper and a mind full of razor blades – and Kieran Read, after seven weeks out with a broken thumb, played like a true Titan. Steve Hansen rarely – if ever – singles out praises but in the post-match news conference he backhanded Read with a barrage of compliments. ’Yeah, well, he’s a bit grumpy I didn’t take him off sooner,’ said Hansen, ‘but he wasn’t bad after a seven-week holiday.’ The Head Coach – very rarely – gets as effusive as that.
Hansen – clearly – had the air of a man who thought he’d done a number on his opposite number. ‘I always find it interesting when other sides say they’re going to beat us up,’ he said. ‘We can play down and dirty rugby when we need to’. And certainly we’re – all of us – guilty at times of swooning over the New Zealand backs and forgetting the ugly mugs who serve up all that juicy front-foot ball. The lineout apart, the All Blacks’ tight five was a scourge.
Gatland post-match looked a little dazed, almost surprised that the All Blacks had ‘played so hard off nine’ yet convinced that ‘it was all fixable’. To my mind, though, the key word there was ‘all’ because the fixes are so many and so varied. Some famous names simply didn’t fire, the substitution of Te’o was a head-scratch and the Lions – clearly – need more composure at the sharp end and more concentration when they’re under the pump. Gatland could’ve argued that Lady Luck could have smiled more kindly – and indeed he did – but he’s far too smart to take refuge in that or in the fifteen-point margin. Rhys Webb’s late try – very smartly taken – was little more than a fart in a thunderstorm.
One punter apparently bet three grand on Codie Taylor being the opening try-scorer and so walked off seventy grand the richer, which sounds sweet enough, until you realise that if you can spare three thousand to make a bet as bonkers as that, the chances are that the seventy you win isn’t going to radically change your life. And of course there was the obligatory streaker who strutted back and forth during an injury break and deftly side-stepped a couple of lunging stewards before being brutally subdued and dragged away to have his credit-card endorsed. I don’t actually mind pissed people weaving round the pitch in the middle of a Test Match with their willies, or indeed their tits, hanging out but I do – violently – object to the smug smile.
NORTH ISLAND – SUNDAY 25 JUNE 2017
A long season of short-haul flights around the GP12 has staled me somewhat, so much so that a 643.3 kilometre, eight-hour drive down the North Island to Wellington felt like a breeze given the alternative was yet another hour in a tube of toothpaste inhaling recycled flatulence. Besides Wellington is one of those airports where, in the vicious crosswinds of the Cook Straits, planes land sideways – if at all – and tottering to baggage reclaim with my stomach on rinse cycle truly didn’t appeal. If God had meant me to fly, he’d have given me a bit more undercarriage.
But more than that, it’s not until you get out into the wilderness that you see the best of this place. New Zealand struggles with cities – downtown Auckland is uglier than your in-laws – but few do the Great Outdoors as outstandingly well as the Kiwis. Given no one appreciates my scintillating company as much as I do – and I accept there are very good reasons for that – it was set to be a long shift at the steering wheel but, even so, the lonely road south looked about as seductive as silk stockings.
K-dog had ‘stolen’ the car for the past week – his needs being greater than mine – and when he handed me back the keys this morning, I was stunned to see how tidy it was given cameramen generally leave hire cars looking like the bottom of a woman’s handbag. ‘K-dog, did you valet this or something?’ I asked. Suddenly he was looking a little sheepish. ‘No, but I had to give Sir Ian McGeechan a lift to Eden Park last night,’ he said. ‘So I thought I ought to clean it up a bit’. I gave him a long hard stare while – groveler that he is – he begged me not to tell anyone. Graciously, I agreed to keep it between the two of us.
So I took a deep breath and eased onto State Highway One along with all the usual tailgaters and undertakers, none of whom appears to take Sunday off. Plus I’ve been struggling all tour to sort out my wipers from my winkers given that, down here, the stalks on the steering column are arse about face, so I was well into Darkest Waikato before I finally stopped overtaking on intermittent wipe.
New Zealand is forty shades of green and for mile after mile all I had for company were undulating cows and ‘toi toi’; willows of native grass that wave at you cheerfully as you pass by. I spent five miles overtaking a ponderous freight train and – at one point – turned left onto Tree Trunk Gorge Road, an address that’d need a very long envelope. Cattle gave way to mutton and the road twisted up into the forests – K-dog’s flight cases sloshing around behind me – before finally unravelling south of Taupo.
The Desert Road south was spooky, an almost lunar landscape where New Zealand’s Salisbury Plain stretches out across the Volcanic Plateau guarded by the glowering trio of Tongariro, Ngaruahoe and – the big one – Ruapehu, which last blew its top twenty years ago. Convoys of camouflaged armour rumbled past, as did two Ford Capris, an Aston Martin and two ambulances both of which were in a screaming hurry. It’s not true to say that New Zealand is the middle of nowhere but if you pull off the Desert Road and stand on a box, you can definitely see the middle of nowhere. Ten miles on, I passed a hitchhiker with a dubious State Correction Facility haircut, ‘passed’ being the operative word.
Single-mindedly, I ignored the lure of the off-piste excursions; Hamilton Zoo, the Waitomo Caves, the Nga Manu Nature Reserve, the Hunterville Settlers’ Museum, the Bruce Park Walking Track, the Orakaru Battle Site – ‘Rewi Maniapoto’s last stand’- the Tokaanu Thermal Pools, the National Trout Centre, the National Army Museum, the Mangaweka Gallery – resident artist Richard Aslett – the De Molen Authentic Dutch Windmill, the Otaki Historic Railway Station, the Levin Rose Gardens, River Rock Adventures, the Gravity Canyon and Taihape Golf Club which boasted the ‘finest 12th hole in NZ’. I also left behind something called Simpson’s Reserve, only to spend the next twenty minutes wondering whether it might have been a large glass of port and – thereby – worth turning round to investigate. My indecision turned out to be final.
Indeed my only stop was to fill up an empty tank – pulling in at the gas shop behind a 1975 Mercury Grand Marquis that was straight off the set of ‘The Rockford Files’ – and to pop into ‘The Ministry of Books’ across the road where a sign said, and I quote: ‘Please put the books back in the right place. We can’t afford to pay staff to tidy up every five minutes. Thanks for your help.’ Few countries, anywhere, are as cheerfully blunt as New Zealand.
It was journey of startling geographical contrasts and imponderable questions. Is there an apostrophe anywhere in this country? And why do clouds make you feel so reflective? Poaching sunshine gave way to rainstorms and vice versa; Maria called in the middle of her night to offer wifely support and to gently take the piss. ‘Seen any kangaroos yet?’ she yawned. No, I hadn’t but I did log twelve campervans, seven sets of roadworks, six cyclists, five police cars, four roadside graveyards, three horseboxes, two speed cameras and – sluicing through a shower into Foxton – a rainbow. Who was it who said, ‘sunset is my favourite colour but rainbow is my second?’ I can’t remember.
Heading into Manawatu I picked up a tail-gater, a seething sodomite in a ‘Ford’ pickup who was so far up my ‘muffler’ I couldn’t even see his number plate. In fact all I could see in my rear-view mirror was the word ‘FORD’ on his front grille. He finally overtook at around a hundred and thirty on a blind bend and I was happy to wave him goodbye, albeit with a wave that was four digits short.
The one traffic jam of the day was north of Paraparaumu – I was hoping the seething sodomite had climbed a tree wearing his pickup – but it was just another roadwork beyond which lay the journey’s end. Wellington is the 138th smallest capital city in the world right behind San Juan, Puerto Rico; a shabby chic enclave, promenades within, promontories without and wind just about everywhere. If you’ve neither a tattoo nor a skateboard, you’re as good as naked.
Our hotel is one of the city’s more eclectic neighbourhoods, cheek by jowl with a banjo emporium, an Army Surplus Store, a fruit market and a knocking shop, which – you’d imagine – should cater for most of our needs. I’m not sure about the hotel itself given the rooms are a serious test of your sense of humour. I can’t open the door without clocking the bed, the bathroom smells of dead penguins, the bedside table is bigger than the desk, the clock’s thirteen minutes slow, the walls are made of reinforced cardboard and just one pane of grimy glass stands between the eclectic neighbourhood and a good night’s sleep. I sense this might end in tears.
At least we actually have accommodation in Wellington. Rob Kitson from ‘The Guardian’ – ‘the world’s leading liberal voice’ – was booked into a hotel ten miles away in Nelson, the problem being that Nelson is on the north of the south island and Wellington on the south of the north, leaving KitKat to swim the Cook Straits to get to Lions’ news conferences. Sarah Mockford from ‘Rugby World’ had a similar problem earlier in the tour when the room booked for her in Christchurch, Canterbury turned out to be in Christchurch, Dorset.
The Lions – not surprisingly – have come rather better prepared, a palatial hotel, a conference centre round the corner to keep the grubby media at arm’s length during news conferences and a fleet of Chelsea Tractors to whisk them the three hundred yards twixt the two. Jack Nowell and Jonathan Joseph were among those holding court this evening; both as bemused as the rest of us regarding selection. Joseph was held back from the last midweek game yet – puzzlingly – didn’t make the Test team and Nowell suddenly finds himself at full back against the Hurricanes with – so it seems – no word from the coaching staff as to why he’s suddenly been stuck there. Grilled on all this creative tension, it was folded arms and shrugged shoulders all round.
You feel for the players in these situations. It’s as though they’re turning up cold at the Royal Court or the National to audition for Macbeth. There’s no direction, no steer; just them on the stage in the spotlight thinking; well, do I give them my version of the daggers I see before me or I do give them what I think they want to see from the daggers I see before me? It’s ticklish. At Bath or the Chiefs, you can sit down with the director and spitball the role; the nuances, the pacing, the wheels within wheels but – here with the Lions – you’re on the hoof, there’s no crib-sheet and there’s little or no time to rehearse. That said, I reckon if Jack’s the Lad on Tuesday against the ‘Canes and if Gatland’s ready to roll the dice, he’ll be number twenty-three on Saturday’s Second Test team-sheet.
Jack – incidentally – has been rooming with Courtney Lawes – that’s an awful lot of tattoos in one room – and also with George North, who also needs a big game against the Hurricanes. According to Nowellsy – ‘Lego’ geek that he is – he and George have had the building bricks out and made the most of their downtime. Don’t you just love that; although how chuffed will George be to be ‘outed’ as a closet Lego Head? Then again, I suppose it could be worse.
26 JUNE 2017