‘BEEF’S BEEF; CREDIT CARD SHUFFLE IN QUEENSTOWN; AUCKLAND’S PERFECT STORM; THE FENG SHUI OF THE SUITE LIFE; THE WASPISH WARREN GATLAND; A FLAT WHITE WITH FOXY AND THE EIGHTH OF AN INCH HAIRCUT. EVEN THE DULL MOMENTS ARE MEMORABLE ON A LIONS TOUR.
AUCKLAND – WEDNESDAY 05 JULY 2017
‘Beef’ has a beef about yesterday’s match report from Chamberlain Park. He says I forgot to mention the hellish, hanging lie from which he – majestically – hooked a metal three two hundred yards round a tree, under some low-hanging branches, up a hill and onto the middle of the green where – yes, there‘s more – his ball danced in its own pitch-mark before settling six feet from the pin; an omission – by implication – rooted in mean-spirited envy. I haven’t got a clue what he’s talking about but since I love him dearly I’m happy to – hereby – straighten the record. I am also going to give him a little clap the next time he comes back from the toilet.
Word from the frontier in Queenstown is that the winter sun is in full bloom, ‘The Remarkables’ are basking in a golden glow and the Lions are enjoying either (a) some well-earned mental refreshment and the occasional thrill and spill or (b) unbroken nights out getting shit-faced, the option taken being entirely dependent on your role in the rest of the week. Certainly for those taking option (b), this is, emphatically, not the time to be losing a round of credit card shuffle at the end of the evening.
I have to say, I’m envious. This is my umpteenth tour of New Zealand and while I’ve seen all of Auckland, Invercargill, New Plymouth, Rotorua and Dunedin, I’ve yet to find either sufficient time or a stiff enough excuse to get myself to Queenstown, which is little like visiting India and missing the Taj Mahal. Worse still, I sense I may have missed my final chance.
Needless to say ‘The New Zealand Herald’ has taken a rather Victorian view of the tourists heading ‘off-tour’; prudishly contrasting quote, ‘frolicking Lions in Queenstown’ with quote, ‘austere, dedicated All Blacks training the house down in Auckland’, which has to be one of my favourite lines of the trip so far. But then ‘The Herald’ has been sucking lemons all week; bitching about Sean O’Brien, bad-mouthing Mako Vunipola and burning Jerome Garces at the stake. It’s been an utter joy to read.
Forecast ‘a few showers’ late this afternoon, we had a downpour that sounded like the end of the world, a deafening deluge of water that pummeled my window for fully fifteen minutes. It’s rare that the weather truly scares you but at one point I was seriously considering the nuclear option of hiding beneath my desk. I vividly remember a storm late one evening at Hazeltine, Minnesota – it was the 2003 USPGA Championship – when it felt as thought he whole course had been possessed. It was fabulously terrifying.
Coming out of the lift this morning, I bumped into a man carrying a Christmas tree. I would’ve asked him the obvious question but the tree was so big I could barely see him let alone talk to him. Housekeeping here this week has also been baffling me. My ‘room attendant’ and I danced a passable ‘paso doble’ together on Monday – which was chummy enough – but every day since, she’s broken into my room when I’ve been out and rearranged all my rearrangements. It’s infuriating.
Obviously you don’t tinker with your hotel room too much when you’ve checked in for a night or two but when you’re en suite for a week, you tend to customise the place a little. So I have the kettle plugged into the television socket where it stands sentry over an oasis of English breakfast teas and decaffeinated coffee sachets. I’ve dispensed with the in-room dining menus, the glossy magazines, the questionnaires and the safety card showing what to do in the event of a landing on water, I’ve repositioned the phone and the light by the bed, I’ve hung the complementary robe behind the bathroom door and I’ve shifted the waste bin from next to the cupboard to next to the desk. The room is now totally ‘feng shui’.
But then I come back in the evening and the kettle – emptied of water, flex wound round the handle – has been parked back in the drawer along with my instant beverages. Room service directories and the glossy magazines are suddenly back on display on the table, the bedside light and phone have been transplanted, the robe is back in the cupboard and the waste bin can’t be found for love nor money. It’s like being burgled by a neat freak and it’s maddening. I have left my dancing partner a note in block capitals for tomorrow morning.
AUCKLAND – THURSDAY 06 JULY 2017
After three days scattered around Islands North and South, the Lions Tour has reconvened in an agog Auckland where – today – the America’s Cup was flaunted through the streets and around the harbour and where – on Saturday – the All Blacks will put the uppity Lions back in their cage. Or so this almost febrile city seems to think.
Warren Gatland’s Test news conference in Wellington last Thursday was inaudible; today’s in Auckland was almost invisible given the entire communion was lit by just one lamp. The opening two questions – both from Sky Sports News’ Gail Davis – elicited two answers totaling three words at which point you seriously wondered whether Gatland was going to take the Fifth Amendment. Suddenly, though, he found his tongue and by the end of the session he’d become a mint of phrases and a feast of words but it was his odd, icy tone in the opening exchange that stuck squarely in the mind.
And – presumably – it’d lodged squarely in his mind too because he stepped straight into a briefing with the scribblers and, reportedly, diced Gail for her ‘negativity’, her first negative question being; ‘Warren it’s the same twenty-three from Wellington; were you tempted to make changes?’ The pity, I suppose, is that he didn’t take up the matter directly with Gail instead of griping to the boys in the writers’ briefing; yet another female broadcaster – Dot Davies, Sonja McLaughlan – who’s been publicly stung by a waspish Warren.
But then Gatland and the media can quickly become a sore subject. For what it’s worth, my own relationship with him borders on the prickly given that we’ve – almost effortlessly it seems – grown to dislike each other down the years. Not that this should matter one jot to either of us: we’re not there to be buddies and just because the relationship’s faintly radioactive doesn’t mean you can’t be civil. And that’s not just peculiar to Warren Gatland. In my experience, the mightier the Head Coach the tetchier the relationship. There are very few exceptions.
Yet for a man who claims to wear a thick hide, he seems acutely sensitive to sticks and stones. In fairness, there’ve been times when he’s been badly bitten by the media – not least on Lions tours – so, from his point of view, why would you offer treats to a dog that – on occasions – has taken the arse out of your trousers? Besides on the long list of Gatland’s priorities in the short, fraught weeks of a Lions Tour, dealing with the media probably comes just above taking out the bins.
But if and when the Lions’ review this tour – and assuming anyone cares – they need to fathom out why their relationship with the Fourth Estate was so poor or, in the words of one writer, so ‘poisonous’. I’ve never seen the media corps – anywhere – this unanimously angry. Late onto the tour, I spoke to four of the posse in the first two days I was here, reasonable men all but each describing the rapport with the Lions Media Team in words you wouldn’t find in a Bible.
Access and attitude has been the nuts of it; supposedly, far too little of one and far too much of the other. This very morning Gatland marched past the photographers at training and – scarcely without breaking stride – told them to fill their boots because tomorrow ‘I’m shutting it down’. As parting shots go, it went down like a lead balloon. ‘We’ll miss that warm welcome we get every time we turn up’ tweeted the Press Association’s David Davies, who’s been on several more Lions’ tours than Warren Gatland. The experienced Stephen McCarthy from ‘Sportsfile’ summed up the feelings snapper-wide; ‘the worst access to any team I’ve ever had.’
This really shouldn’t need to be pointed out but if you treat people as though they’re the recidivist element of the Lower Fourth then – please – don’t expect to feel any love in return. Disdain is tough to forgive or forget. It was said that what tipped Monica Lewinsky over the edge wasn’t Bill Clinton denying any sexual impropriety but denying that he’d ever had sex with ‘that woman.’ The lies she could suffer; the contempt she could not.
And, of course, all this rather brusque behaviour – regrettably – sets a tone elsewhere in the organisation. So – for example – as confusion reigned in Wellington last week as to where K-dog and I were supposed to be setting up to do an interview with Sam Warburton – left hand was telling us over here, right hand over there – the Head of Communications, David Barton, came out with the tart but immortal line ‘look, I make the calls around here’. I shouldn’t have laughed but I’m afraid I did. After all, it’s a brave man who publicly admits to being the brains behind a media operation that’s widely held to be – in squaddie-speak – Charlie Foxtrot.
Conversely – and ridiculously so in the circumstances – the players have been sweethearts; polite, patient, honest and more than happy to reflect the infectious spirit of a tour they’re clearly lapping up with a spoon. They cheerfully share insights into life on the bus or in the team room, candid opinions of their new-found friends and adventures and – most of all – their sense of real warmth and enthusiasm for the Lions, be they older hands like Rory Best or Sean O’Brien or younger bloods like Ian Henderson and Maro Itoje. Grounded and gracious, they are a huge part of the culture that makes this sport such a unique joy to cover.
Today we shared five minutes with the skipper – when I grow up I want to be Sam Warburton – and a fifteen-minute flat white with Jonathan Davies, who’s become one of the Daddies of the Tour. His luge wasn’t so hot in Queenstown – he was left for dead by a second row and a video analyst – but given the last time he was heading into a Third Test with the Lions, the O’Driscollistas were trying to put his head on a spike, finishing third out of three on a luge isn’t giving him too many sleepless nights.
In fact if ‘Foxy’ goes the full eighty on Saturday and the Lions win, he’ll join Ian MacLaughlan, Willie-John MacBride, Mervyn Davies, Gareth Edwards and JPR Williams in an elite group of only six players who’ll have played every minute of back-to-back Test series wins with the Lions. ‘Yes, well in forty years’ time when my Lions’ blazer doesn’t fit me maybe I’ll reflect on that,’ he said. ‘But there’s a bit of work to do first.’
K-dog shot the piece in ‘The Shortland Café’ and made it look like a million dollars – the fear has to be that someone’s going to snap him up to shoot the next Bond film – and while he tidied up all his gubbins, I popped next-door for a haircut. Given I have a receding hairline that’s long since receded past my ears, this felt like a bit of an extravagance but even a smattering of moss can look scruffy on a flat roof, so I decided to treat myself.
In all it was nine minutes work – including the face fluff – but then all I was looking to lose was about an eighth of an inch all round. Normally barbering takes me no further than the kitchen where the nearest wife or teenager wields a brief buzz-saw while texting their friends and/or feeding the dog but, here, I not only got to keep my scalp but I got a hot towel afterwards.
06 JULY 2017