Gerry Thornley: New Zealand media alters tack prior to Test
Realisation dawns that Lions pose powerful threat to all-conquering All Blacks machine
The red army celebrate after the victory over the Chiefs at Waikato Stadium in Hamilton, New Zealand. Photograph: David Rogers/Getty Images
It’s always the same on Lions tours. Up until the final midweek game before the first Test, there’s the warm-up games and the jousting and sparring in front of the media. Then from a day or two before the first Test the mood music changes dramatically as both the Red Army and the media pack swells.
The onset of the first Test has not only revved up interest and an impending sense of a potentially epic rugby series between two traditionally mighty superpowers from the different hemispheres, it has also seemingly come with a greater appreciation from the New Zealand written media that the Lions might actually be a threat to the almighty, all-powerful All Blacks.
Until the last couple of days, there has been a demeaning treatment of the Lions, admittedly by only a handful of journalists, to the point where the relevance of the Lions has been called into question. This hasn’t tallied with the intense interest, hospitality and full houses everywhere they’ve gone.
Although there have been only six matches prior to the first Test, predictably and fittingly the itinerary, much like the rugby, has been unrelentingly intense. Since the long haul over, there have been seven changes of hotels for the squad, and for those in the media here from the outset, seven changes of hotels or motels! You take what you get, and the service is always friendly and couldn’t be more helpful.
There have been four internal flights, and four internal drives, which are eminently more enjoyable than checking in at airports, weighing in bags and sitting in departure lounges etc, such is the often spectacular countryside and village cafes and restaurants for a stop-off. One can see why so many travelling fans opt to do it all, or chunks of it, by road.
Days off for the squad have been as rare as hen’s teeth; two to date, and both were also travel days. Yesterday, the non-23 for the first Test were afforded a day off, while those in the match-day squad were free for the afternoon.
The players’ families, friends and loves ones began arriving over the last two days as well, thus adding to the relative calm before the storm, as the squad and management distributed match tickets.
However, the invasion of the Red Army, even in the team hotel, makes it difficult for the players to even appear in the foyer without being bombarded for photos. Even so they have happily wandered down the hill from their hotel and into downtown Auckland.
Hotel rooms are monotonous places to be holed up working, but one can still find little nooks and crannies away from the madding crowds. Le Chef is one such place, a true to its name little French café which is located on Vulcan Lane.
Good wifi, good coffee, good food, good wine. It does themed French nights and is actually looking for an Irish band to play in an open air event next St Patrick’s Day.
As for the squad, to further break the monotony of hotel living, on Thursday night they had their weekly meal out in Soul restaurant by the viaduct, thus demonstrating that a chunk of the Irish media had chosen wisely by booking the same restaurant for last night. What’s seldom is wonderful!
This tour, with its time difference and advent of websites compared to a dozen years ago, has curtailed sampling New Zealand’s fine cuisine and fine wines compared to then. Expensive too. A sauvignon blanc for almost NZ$60 (circa €40) in one restaurant, can be frequently bought for around €13 in O’Briens in Sandymount. Yeah, yeah. Boo-hoo we hear you say!
As ever, the Lions’ security guards kept a low profile on Thursday night and there was no trouble, and, touch wood, there have been no incidents to date. None of the squad have stepped even slightly out of line. They have provided no ammunition for negative off-pitch coverage. Off the pitch, these Lions have been a public relations’ success story.
True, the night before, there was a slightly unsavoury incident in a restaurant where the Lions team manager John Spencer was dining out with his wife and two other couples.
One New Zealand man in a large group at another table began an increasingly abusive tirade before approaching Spencer and his group, and when the Lions manager attempted to stand up, the man pushed him back down in his seat. The New Zealander in question even brusquely dismissed entreaties by his wife and friends to rejoin him, before he eventually did so.
Apparently the aggressive interloper objected to one of Spencer’s party wearing a red polo top. It wasn’t even a replica Lions jersey. Given the weekend that’s in it, well, the All Blacks fan had better get used to it! Alternatively of course, he could just stay at home for the weekend.
One abusive fan behind the Lions’ replacements and management staff apparently was shouting abuse during the Maori game in Rotorua, although none of the intended recipients actually heard him. There was also a scuffle between two rival fans of the Blues and the Lions in Eden Park for the first midweek game, which was caught on camera but also dealt with swiftly.
Even Spencer himself has scoffed off the incident. Nevertheless, that it generated some publicity in two English newspapers demonstrates how any incidents are liable to be pounced upon and reported.