lions tour diary #four



Lear had his Fool; New Zealand has its Herald, in the shape of rugby correspondent, Gregor Paul, who writes like a man wearing a cap and bells. This morning he was high on his pantomime horse about Warren Gatland; specifically the Lions’ Head Coach’s gentle gripe about the All Blacks ‘targeting’ Conor Murray’s non-kicking leg during Saturday’s test. Gatland – clearly – was drawing fire from his team and giving the trigger-happy Kiwi press someone else to shoot at post the Eden Park debacle; a diversionary tactic only a complete putz – or Gregor Paul – would’ve failed to spot, although, this June, the two are becoming inseparable.

Laying down his monocle and digging deep into his limitless reserves of pomposity, Paul let it all hang out in one of the great, blindfold broadsides of the tour so far. ‘Implying the All Blacks are dirty is the unforgivable sin,‘ he thundered. ‘Questioning their playing ethics and morals is a line that can’t be crossed.’ Ah, the joy of laughter.

Off the top of my head, Colin Meads was sent off for kicking a prone Scotsman at Murrayfield in 1967. Keith Murdoch was involved in a ‘fracas’ with a bouncer at the Angel Hotel, Cardiff in 1972 and sent home. Andy Haden dived out of a line-out, Richard Loe was banned for gouging, Tana and Kevin are unlikely to get a Christmas card anytime soon from Brian O’Driscoll, Aaron Smith has taken toiletry beyond numbers one and two and onto number three and – who knows – four and Aaron Cruden was recently binned for two matches for being so tired and emotional that he missed the team’s flight to Argentina. And that’s without mentioning Ali Williams’ arrest for allegedly trying to procure cocaine from an undercover policeman under the Eiffel Tower, Dan Carter’s drink-driving charge or Byron Kelleher being fined for domestic abuse.

And according to the rugby judiciary, had Jaco Peyper given Malakai Fekitoa the red card he deserved in Dublin last year, Ireland would’ve had a full half an hour to try to retrieve an eight-point deficit against fourteen men; not only that but Fekitoa wouldn’t have been on the pitch to score the game-clinching try. Look, I have no axe to grind here either with this country or with the All Blacks – I’m long fond of New Zealand and I doff my hat to world sport’s most dominant team – but when trolls like Gregor Paul refuse to let the facts get in the way of a good story, it diminishes us all.

And all this from the comic that – yet again – splashed with a click-bait cartoon of Warren Gatland, an organ so keen to do its bit for the environment that it’s now recycling news. Is it any wonder circulation’s down eight per cent? And – while we’re there – does journalism get any lamer than this? Pressed for an opinion on being caricatured not once but – now – twice in the national daily, Gatland shrugged his shoulders and – I suspect – spoke for all of us. ‘I couldn’t give a toss,’ he said.

But then lambasting Lions isn’t exactly new. Twelve years ago the Otago Head Coach accused them of ‘cheating like buggery’ and, as the tourists went down to a blackwash at Eden Park in the Third Test, the NZH ran a headline which read; ‘Is Clive Woodward a Psychopath?’ It wasn’t a rhetorical question. They’d dragged in a shrink, a Dr. Nick Wilson from the Waikato Institute of Technology, and asked him to – virtually – stick Woodward on the couch. ‘Corporate psychopaths like Woodward share the traits of criminal sociopaths’ said the paper, ‘namely, superficial smoothness, a grandiose sense of self-worth, a lack of remorse and failure to accept responsibility for their own actions.’ And in fairness, I’m sure there are still a few Welshmen who’d be nodding their heads at that.

‘Sky Sports’ James Gemmell joined me for a skinny latte this morning and – in an enjoyable hour – filled me in on the New Zealand national psyche. A tourist in his own land these three weeks – and as beautiful and as broad-minded a man as you’d ever wish to meet – he seemed a little deflated about the shriller fringes of the New Zealand rugby firmament. But then Test rugby in New Zealand – like Test football in Argentina – is the moment the country has a national erection and when the brain’s starved of that much blood, it’s scarcely surprising it sometimes doesn’t think straight. Put it this way, the likes of Gregor Paul aren’t a symptom of New Zealand but of small-minded shit-shifters the world over.

Rarely has a sports stadium been better lampooned than Wellington’s so-called ‘Cake Tin’. Its corporate sponsor – ’Westpac’ – must be tearing out its hair. Declining – understandably perhaps – to rummage through the contents of my threadbare bag, a yellow lady at the security desk asked me to unzip my backpack whereupon she leant forward and ran her nose over it like a beagle. How exactly do they train people to do that?

Three scores up at half time, the Lions ended up kissing their sisters and – to be fair – they were lucky to get away with the draw. The clear implication of Warren Gatland’s post-match news conference was that the blame was squarely Ian Henderson’s. Had he not tipped-tackled his way onto the naughty step in the embers of the game, the Lions would’ve seen it out and wrapped up a fifth win. Yes, well, up to a point, Lord Copper.

Henderson – let’s not ponce about here – turned in one of the great individual performances of the tour so far. He was a gilt-edged donkey in the tight, as alert as a boarding-house cat in the loose and his split-second pass for George North’s try was – genuinely – a drop-your-chips moment. In time-honoured Lions’ tradition, he has grown and grown on this tour and while – yes – his sin-bin was a game-changer, he was unlucky rather than malicious or stupid.

Certainly Warren Gatland’s implied criticism of one of his best players was – let’s be charitable – disingenuous given he had six, fresh pairs of legs sitting on the bench which he refused to deploy. Warren has got his knickers in a mother of a twist on the so-called ‘Dirty Half Dozen’ from the moment they arrived and never more so than tonight. ‘So much was made about devaluing the jersey, so we made a decision we would try and get through the game with as many of the starting fifteen as we could,’ he said afterwards. ‘So we made a collective decision’ – collective, note – ‘that we’d just make them injury or HIA replacements, which is what happened on two occasions.’

Pithily, Martin Bayfield tweeted that Gatland’s call was ‘insane’. Certainly it defied logic. Having already ‘cheapened’ the badge and having cocked his snook at the critics for bringing them here, he should’ve seen it through. Instead he bottled it and left his starters to fry to a point at which they came within a whisker of losing the match. When – for example – was the last time a Lions front row – any international front row – went the full eighty minutes as Marler, Best and Cole did tonight? However you’ve come by your lifebelt, to stand on the quay and not throw it to a drowning man is a tough one to defend.

By the time Gatland had finished squirming through his news conference, the Sky Sports team had all headed home; save for K-dog who was sitting in the car in the TV Compound, ears pricked and tail wagging. ‘You never leave a soldier,’ he said, as I gave him a small, heartfelt hug. I’ve long since loved this man but never more so than tonight.


The curtains in this hotel don’t quite cover the windows, which means that, at sparrowfart, the dawn bleeds in and bounces off the barley white walls. It’s like trying to sleep in the middle of a light bulb. Others are suffering similar issues, which is why breakfast this week has become a whine-in for the half-baked and the grumpy. Even Miles Harrison, who can sleep standing up in a cold shower, is finding this hotel a challenge.

But then week two of a Test Series is often when the stresses and strains of too many days on the road in confined spaces begin to tell; a minor disagreement about which station lies between Trafalgar Square and Leicester Square on a ‘Monopoly’ board can spontaneously lead to folk stepping outside and grappling in the street. The Lions’ Media team – I’m told – tried to put the Head of Strength and Conditioning on the stand at a news conference today – no disrespect to ‘Bobby’ but that’s laughable in a do-or-die Second Test week – only for the papers to boycott the presser and offer several frank and forthright opinions backstage to the Lions’ very own Sean Spicer, David Barton. It’s becoming frisky.

I too am suffering given I seem to have picked up a strange dose of Diana Ross and the Supremes. These things often happen on tours; you’re in a bar, a coffee-house, a lift – it can be anywhere – you unwittingly inhale too much piped Motown and it lodges in your brain. And then the next night you’re standing in the tunnel with the Lions’ Head Coach waiting for a green light on your live interview and you find yourself very quietly singing, ‘Stop, In The Name of Love’, albeit without the little dance thing that the girls used to do. Granted, there are worse diseases to go down with on tour than a nasty dose of Diana Ross, but I think I’d prefer a sore throat.

I checked out of the tour today and hunkered down in a Cuba Street coffee-shop, arriving at ten thirty with a laptop and a novel and leaving at eight this evening when the caffeine finally got the better of me and my eye-balls fell on the floor. But even here you can’t escape. Joe Marler and Dan Cole wandered past the window, stopped, scratched their arses, turned round and walked back the way they’d come. You take a prop five yards from the nearest set-piece and he’s completely lost.

What was intriguing about this all-too-short glimpse of two of my very favourite props was how surreal they looked. Neither – very deliberately I presume – was wearing an inch of red yet they might just as well have had numbers on their backs; tree-trunk necks, aircraft carrier shoulders and between them, taking up the entire pavement. It was as though two elephants had decided to take a day off from Wellington Zoo, stick on a pair of jeans and a sweater and have an anonymous afternoon in the city blending in to the streetscape.

Most of the ‘Sky Sports’ team spent the day thrashing though the undergrowth at the Royal Wellington Golf Club where the second of the two fourballs – disconcertingly – had Beauden Barrett and Israel Dagg up their exhaust pipes. Predictably the two Kiwis were pinpoint golfers and absolute gentlemen. This evening the boys moved on to a team dinner, joining them for the back-end of dessert and a glass of port being my worst mistake of the tour so far. Never, ever agree to catch up with anyone five hours after they’ve arrived at the nineteenth hole, not when you’re stone cold sober.

Stevie Ferris – I’m told – had the Gremolata Crumbed Calamari, the Slow Cooked Lamb Shank and, on the way home, a Mega Mac. You cannot separate that boy from a plate of calories for any longer than fifty-eight minutes. It’s like living with a new-born. The big worry heading home, though, was SQ who – once upon a time after boisterous nights out – was wont to move parked cars; turning them round so that when the owners came down the next day, they were facing the other way.

He and Emyr Lewis, he says, once picked up a Mini outside a night-club, re-arranged it in the middle of the street and headed into the club only for the bouncers to track them down and – politely – ask them if they wouldn’t mind coming outside and putting it back. This is why the Fan Van has no jack. If they pick up a flat tyre, SQ holds up the van, Bear changes the wheel and Luke makes them both a cup of tea.

28 JUNE 2017


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