lions tour diary #six

HISTORY LESSONS; JEROME, SWEET, JEROME; WAKING UP TO SCAFFOLDING POLES; WHY SUPERMAN WEARS TAULUPE FALETAU PAJAMAS; STOCK EFFLUENT DISPOSAL POINTS; A PASO DOBLE WITH HOUSEKEEPING AND LAST, BUT NEVER LEAST, A MAN CALLED ‘HORSE’.

WELLINGTON – SATURDAY 01 JULY 2017

History – according to the masterful, venerable Alan Bennett – is just one damn thing after another, a line which always makes me swoon with envy. But it’s also a collection of imponderables, what ifs and maybes and in years to come, the history of this Lions series may yet spin on the ‘what if’ of Sonny Bill Williams’ red-mist red card. In short, was Wellington the All Blacks’ Waterloo because the Lions were the better team or because Williams became the first All Black to be sent off in fifty years? Perhaps Eden Park next Saturday will give history a clue.

It was certainly one of the great Tests and one of the great sporting occasions, all the more apocalyptic given the biblical rain. Promised torments and tempests we got both by the bucket and by the end of the match ten pages of notes were a papier-mâché brick and the grollies were wetter than a mermaid’s brassiere. It was a match too that confounded almost all the received wisdom; the idea that the Lions could only win by deploying a mighty bench – four of them sat there and got splinters in their bums – or that, for example, the wily Mako Vunipola could get pinged for four penalties and a sin-bin when – hitherto – he hadn’t given away a single penalty all tour. Or for that matter, that the Lions could ship thirteen penalties to the All Blacks – ten of them kickable – and still win.

Indeed coming into the game, the Lions had conceded as many tries in their past two games (seven) as they had in their previous six, yet they managed to keep a clean sheet in Wellington. And flipping that around, how remarkable was it that the All Blacks not only lost at home for the first time in eight years but that they did so without scoring a try? As Gatland asked afterwards, when did that last happen?

But in some ways this was one of New Zealand rugby’s finest hours. On the pitch after the game – fronting up in the teeming rain – Steve Hansen and Kieran Read were both offered the easy excuse and refused to grasp it. And inside afterwards in front of a battery of snappers and scribblers, there were absolutely no evasions or extenuations. ‘I told you during the week, losing sucks … and tonight was our turn to take it on the chin,’ said Hansen. ‘Williams didn’t use his arms and … unfortunately he connected with young Anthony’s head and put him at risk. So off you go boy.’ It’s genuinely rare to find a Head Coach with that level of emotional intelligence; indeed there is something wonderfully Kipling about Steve Hansen, unusually so given the one imposter is rather more familiar to him than the other.

It was a big night too for Jerome Garces. I’m not sure how many referees would’ve – correctly, unequivocally – dispatched Silly Bill Williams but I suspect Garces would be one of the few names on a very short list. The silence from his touch judges was deafening while the TMO – George Ayoub – did his utmost to help Garces to bottle the big call, offering not just replays but replays of replays that Garces neither wanted nor needed to see. ‘I have no choice, I need to protect the player,’ he said, and Williams was walking. This was the same referee who – again, rightly – red-carded Keith Earls at Thomond Park in Munster’s first game after the passing of Alex Foley. Together, that’s two of the ballsiest calls you’re ever likely to see from one referee.

Gatland – pilloried and panned this past week – somehow resisted the urge to raise two fingers to his tormentors, although in his measured news conference, he made three references to the fact that the Lions’ ‘scored two nice tries tonight’, an oblique rebuke to those who, earlier in the tour, lambasted the Lions for being dog ugly and try-shy. Indeed if anyone’s keeping score in this Test series, it’s now three tries to the All Blacks and four to the Lions and you’d have got very long odds on that three weeks ago.

But – Gatland being Gatland – he couldn’t quite let the moment pass without having a dig. ‘The amount of support from Kiwis and ex-All Blacks contacting me to say that they think the personal stuff was over the top, it’s been a lot, ‘ he said. ‘And whoever’s been doing that, they have no idea how much that’s galvanised us as a group. It’s actually been great for us so, whoever you are, please continue.’

And if that’s true, it fits into a clear pattern on this tour, in that what hasn’t killed these Lions has made them stronger. Gatland was referring to a belittling media but, in hindsight, New Zealand’s rugby’s decision to hand the tourists what Graham Henry described as a ‘suicidal’ schedule has – actually – profited the Lions hugely; shaping them, hardening them and forging them in a shield of steel tough enough be able to take it to the All Blacks. How ironic would it be if – in the end – the Lions were to overturn New Zealand thanks in large part to the quality of the sparring sessions New Zealand rugby provided.

The Lions are now off to Queenstown to decompress for three days – ‘we’re going skiing,’ said Gatland – but no one is any doubt that Saturday at Eden Park will be brutal. ‘It’s a series of three halves and we’ve won nothing yet,’ said Sam Warburton, his bulls-eye assessment compensating for his woeful arithmetic. But psychologically, the tourists struck a huge blow here in Wellington; Faletau turning Dagg into road-kill; the Lions out-lasting the All Blacks in the final furlong instead of the other way round and – unthinkably – beating New Zealand with just 38% possession and 41% territory. An All Black team that’s rarely – if ever – had cause to doubt itself is now flat on its back on Doctor Shrink’s leather couch.

Ten years after I gave up smoking, I ended the evening bug-eyed, brain-dead and gasping for a cigarette. But then it was a barmy night all round, not least Geech – bless him – keeling over before the game had even got underway; a chilling moment, not least for him. Mixed in with the relief that the Lion King was very much alive and kicking in hospital was the disappointment that he’d missed the Lions of 2017 doing what the Lions of 1993 – his Lions – did in Wellington twenty-four years previously in turning the series on its head. We’ll find out next week whether the 2017 tour has a happier ending.

WELLINGTON/AUCKLAND – SUNDAY 02 JULY 2017

Someone – and if I ever track him down I will char-grill his severed penis with an acetylene torch – dropped a scaffolding pole outside my window this – Sunday – morning at 0643 precisely. Add the reverberation factor of a hollow, metal pole bouncing off a concrete floor in a confined back alley to the absorption coefficient of my single pane, paper-thin window – roughly speaking, the square root of bugger all – and you’ll have some idea of how jarring an alarm call this turned out to be. In fact, had the bastard walked into my room and smacked me over the head with the damn thing, I could scarcely have been wider awake.

But then on what was scheduled to be an unforgiving day, it did rather set the tone and, besides, I could scarcely wait to get to the local newspapers at breakfast and see what the poets of the New Zealand press-box had made of The Beaten Blacks. ‘It was the tackle of a man who still hasn’t got the violent stupidity of rugby league out of his system,’ fumed Mark Reason, laying into SBW at ‘stuff.co.nz’ while Mark Geenty of the ‘The Dominion Post’ was equally grumpy about ‘New Zealand’s best known and most polarizing sportsman … ‘B’ for blundering, maybe even brainless; ‘W’ for, well, take your pick’.

Social media, however, had absolutely no intention of letting the result get in the way of its opinion. ‘BIL deserved their win fair and square; their 16 men were too dominant’ was one delicious offering while the conspiracy theorists were also out in force; ‘To pick out the SBW tackle as the only dangerous tackle strongly suggests this was planned. You can’t really believe World Rugby was going to let the cash cow that is the Lions go under.’ At ‘The New Zealand Herald’, Andrew Alderson was doing the man-marking on the match and gave Maro Itoje 4/10. ‘Looked static at times and dropped ball on attack early. Caught offside in 44th minute as he struggled to acclimatise.’ Please, someone, give this man a column. If he’s this funny in twenty words think how hysterical he could be if he were given a thousand.

Graham Rowntree was at the crease at this morning’s Lions’ news conference, closely followed by Jamie George. Rowntree – the man for whom the word ‘stalwart’ could well have been invented – was, of course, one of the cornerstones of England’s mighty win here in 2003 – funnily enough, New Zealand’s last defeat in Wellington – so his record against the All Blacks in the capital city is now – a rather enviable – played two, won two. Jamie George had come hotfoot from the hotel where he’d been waving farewell to his parents who were heading home. ‘They couldn’t get tickets for the Third Test or swap their flights,’ he said. ‘In fact I don’t think they ever thought I’d be in the Test team so they’re gutted.’

George was also very good on the grittiness of this Lions team, grit being a commodity his club side – Saracens – have in spades and with which he’s therefore very familiar. Mako Vunipola is a smiling assassin, Tadhg Furlong is stronger than six acres of onions and Maro Itoje – straight ‘A’ student that he is – simply cannot spell the word ‘lose’. Alun Wyn Jones – it’s well-documented – is hewn from Welsh flint, Sean O’Brien is totally impervious to pain, Sam Warburton has that Ferris-physique-condom-full-of-walnuts sort of look and, as we all know, ‘Superman’ wears Taulupe Faletau pajamas.

And it doesn’t stop with the forwards. Conor Murray may look like a matinee idol – ‘really, you’re working on the Lions’ Tour; can you get me Conor Murray’s room number?’ – but he’s deadlier than death itself and a nark off between Jonny Sexton and Owen Farrell would be even more enthralling than the Third Test. In short, this Lions team has a priceless, uncompromising, teak-tough streak of bloody-mindedness running right through its core and this – almost brutal – mental strength might yet prove to be its ace of diamonds.

The last duty of the morning was to scamper back to the hotel to wish Stephen Ferris ‘safe home’. He has weddings to go to, not least his own. His wagging tail and monogrammed strides will never be forgotten nor will his darts which were fast, flat, bang on the button yet thrown so hard it took two people to pull them out of the board. He and his balloon biceps will be sorely missed.

The road back to Auckland was an eight-hour ache; like travelling up the A1 from London to Edinburgh in 1964. The first hour out of Wellington was noses to tails but once past the blocked drain that was Otaki, the congestion eased. Yet you learn and you see things out on the road that you just don’t get at the airport. ‘Stock Effluent Disposal Points’ – I now know – are lay-bys where cows stop off to go to the toilet and the town of ‘Bulls’ has a welcome sign which says, ‘Herd of Bulls? It’s a Place Like No Udder.’ Had there been somewhere to stop and complain, obviously, I would’ve stopped and complained but, sadly, there wasn’t.

And what’s also fascinating is what – even out in the wilderness –State Highway One tries to sell you as its siren signs loom out of the lashing rain. Had been interested I could’ve bought myself a mortgage, a septic tank, a sack of pine cones, a ‘Thunder Burger’, some fresh asparagus, a concrete footpath, some hand-crafted furniture, home and contents insurance, an alpaca, a bunch of rhododendrons, a sheepskin seat-cover and fifty-one acres of grazing pasture. Feebly, all I actually bought was a cheese and onion sandwich and a bottle of water.

There was a long, quiet straight stretch past Foxton where I was able to sit at ninety and take a short siesta, beyond which were three rainbows and the Desert Road, a genuinely intimidating landscape as the rain and the dusk joined forces. The twisting track beyond Turangi just about melted the brake-pads and – somewhere near Hamilton – a ‘Countdown’ supermarket was missing its ‘U’. On reflection, it could’ve been worse.

The doorman at Auckland’s ‘Langham Hotel’ is a delight of a man called ‘Kev’ – pronounced ‘Kiv’ – who generously rang for a chiropractor as I finally fell out of the car and onto his forecourt. Six hundred and forty-eight kilometres had left me stiffer than a starched shirt.

AUCKLAND – MONDAY 03 JULY 2017

Strange as it may seem to say this – being eleven and a half thousand miles away from my front door – returning to Auckland feels like coming ‘home’; certainly it feels like a release after a week’s imprisonment in Wellington. I have double-glazing, a desk the size of last week’s bed, thick curtains that’re as wide as a tennis court which take two minutes to draw and enough space to dance a brief ‘paso doble’ with a lovely lady from housekeeping. It is just bliss.

Like a small explosion, the tour has scattered for a couple of days. The Lions are in purdah in Queenstown and – for our part – we have some out in Hawke’s Bay chasing grapes, others in beachfront houses on the Coromandel Peninsular and Barnesy – battling several virulent germs – pottering about the hotel here in Auckland dressed like an American. It’s so shockingly un-Stuart; the baseball cap, the beach shorts, the jandals. He looks like Donald Trump’s younger brother.

Doubtless when we all reconvene in a day or so – refreshed and reinvigorated – thoughts will turn to the Tour Oscars, specifically the much-coveted ‘Sky Sports Tourist of the Series’ award. Stevie Ferris is almost certain to be nominated, K-dog without question will be a popular choice but hot favourite has to be Production Manager, George Griffiths, whose duties include setting up and overseeing the entire technical and logistical operation, liaison with host broadcasters and stadium operations managers, fulfilling clearances, indemnities, health and safety criteria and risk assessments and ensuring the commentary box comes fully loaded with bags of Wine Gums (Barnes) and Pineapple Lumps (Harrison).

What’s amazing about ‘Horse’ – ‘why do you call me, Horse?’ ‘Well, GG, obviously.’ ‘Ah, Simmo, the gift of wit’ – is that despite the fact he has the toughest, shittiest, busiest and most stressful job on the tour, he never shouts, never shirks and always thinks of everyone else. In Wellington last week on the eve of July, it was ‘Horse’ who not only spotted the password was about to change on the hotel wifi but emailed an instant, all-stations alert. Had he not done so I’d have probably been chewing my laptop for an entire day – idiot that I am – trying to fathom why it wasn’t working. Put it another way, when Geech toppled over on Saturday, it was ‘Horse’ – who else – who caught him.

And on the quiet, he’s a bit of a rock star, a former bass guitarist with Indie rockers, ‘The New Imposters’ and now part of a five-piece outfit called ‘Savvy Soul’ who do anything and everything from Aretha Franklin to Bruno Mars. They play pubs, clubs, dinner and bar mitzvahs and you can catch them next at ‘The Jolly Sailor’ in Saltford on 22 July, assuming George doesn’t keel over after wasting himself for six weeks out here; unsung but utterly stupendous.

03 JULY 2017

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