lions tour diary #nine




Invited to catch up with some friends in Mt Albert last night – Maria and Anne met at ante-natal classes; our Hanna and her Flynn were born twelve hours apart on the same day in the same delivery room at Kingston Hospital – I stopped off to buy some wine, parking – warily – in a bus stop while I popped in to grab a bottle of Riesling. ‘D’you think I’m okay there for a couple of minutes?’ I asked the proprietor, not wanting to get ticketed for impeding public transport. He peered through the window. ‘Yeah, mate you’re good there,’ he said. ‘So long as a bus doesn’t come along and flatten yer.’

It was a today that never came close to escaping the long shadow of tomorrow. I paced in the corridor for a while – walking, for some reason, helps me think – and went out for lunch at a bohemian café offering blue cheese and potato soup. The salt, I noticed, got no billing; a shame given it was, at the very least, an equal ingredient.

I toyed with the gym but it was full of hamsters. I didn’t dare risk a swim in the outdoor saltwater pool in case someone passed by with a harpoon. But this evening K-dog, Barner, Luke, Warren Gatland’s favourite female reporter and yours truly ate Italian across the street from the hotel and tried not to talk about rugby. It was a strange place given there were pictures of Sammy Davies Jnr rubbing shoulders on the walls with Renoir’s ‘Dance at Bougival’. It made for eclectic eating.


We left for Eden Park at three o’clock – ten minutes away, tops – and arrived an hour later. It was, as my mother would say, a kerfuffle. Detailed to pick up Sir Geech and chauffeur him to the ground, K-dog, Jimmy G and I took five ages to get to his hotel, partly because there was a ruck of taxis in the narrow street outside his front door and partly because waiting for an Auckland traffic light is worse than waiting for Godot.

And then – at the ground – there was ‘The Great Gate ‘Q’ Stand-Off’ where common sense curled up and died. Yes, you have accreditation; yes, you have permission to pass through this gate to unload all your gear; yes, the alternative’s a ball-busting twenty-minute detour via Gate ’J’ whence you’ll have to lug the kit three hundred yards to the TV Compound but your number plate’s not on The List and no one, but no one – said Jonny Jobsworth – questions the authority of The List. Hopefully he’ll get home this evening, take off his badge and erupt into a small plague of boils.

The TV Dinner – again – was tasty; very often on foreign OBs you get something that looks as though it’s been shat by a mule but ‘Skysport NZ’ have done us proud this series. The build up to the game flew by; Gatland was slippery, Hansen was chirpy and Kyle Sinckler fronted up to the Haka – for all the world – like a man waiting for a bus. Props are very good as this. During a snarling Crusaders’ Haka earlier in the tour, Mako Vunipola spring-cleaned his ears.

Presumably you’ll have caught the game so you’ll know the score, even those of you who spent most of it behind the sofa with a cushion over your head. From a selfish and strictly professional point of view, a draw is a sod of a result partly because you spend the last five minutes of the game frantically preparing for three different scenarios, partly because the players are either flummoxed or grumpy but mostly because what makes the post-match interviews ‘car-crash’ viewing is the brutal contrast between unconfined joys and inconsolable dejections; a draw gives you nothing but frowns and confusion. Still if you’ve ever wondered why trophies have two handles, now you know.

The players – to a man – were hands up for extra-time and one last roll of the dice – Beauden Barrett was still chomping at the bit twenty minutes later in the interview area – but the Head Coaches were – both – more sanguine. And while professionally the draw was a pain in the arse to deal with, the Corinthian in me quite liked the idea of the two teams scrapping out a six-week stalemate. There’s a dignity, a nobility and a sense of camaraderie about shared spoils and the patchwork of players posing for the closing picture, arms round shoulders and beaming broadly was truly heart-warming.

And were I a Lion, I’d have been happy enough with a half. The All Blacks could easily have been twenty-five points clear at half-time in that Final Test and – let’s not forget – in a series that’s run to a total of four hours, the Lions have been in front for a total of just three minutes, a truly staggering statistic. Certainly you sensed that ‘all square’ was growing on the tourists with every second that passed; the stands at Eden Park still full of raucous, red shirts long after the boys and girls in black had slipped into the night.

Warren Gatland rolled up to his news conference wearing a red nose on his bugle but Steve Hansen’s wits – yet again – were the sharper. ‘Steve, did you miss Dane Coles in this series?’ asked one Kiwi journalist. ‘Nah, mate, he’s been with us in camp all the time.’ And it was Hansen again who refused to offer excuses, specifically on Romain Poite’s ‘changement de coeur’ in the last gasp of the game. ‘Look, if we’d taken out chances earlier we wouldn’t be having this conversation, would we?’ he said. ‘Mind you, if he’d played an advantage, Anton Leinert-Brown’s under the sticks.’

Back at the hotel, we drank it all through one last time although – unbelievably – the bar was empty by one thirty the next morning. People were clearly taking the draw more seriously than I’d thought and the sense of anti-climax was stifling.

JULY 2017


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