Red Army 25,000-strong and ready to roar on their Lions
Hopes and spirits remain high as touring fans brave the elements and early last calls
Lions players celebrate with supporters after the second Test victory in Wellington. Photograph: David Gray/Reuters
Over the past six weeks, members of the Lions four nations choir have sung in blustery southerlies, skin-blistering sun, and over the sneezes and coughs of New Zealand kids in the middle of winter.
Thursday night, though, was their greatest challenge – being buffeted by horizontal rain as members of their rugby squad marched by in handsome maroon blazers, flanked by wives and girlfriends in dresses and heels.
As the Pacific Ocean hurled itself on to the Auckland docks metres away, they sung a rousing edition of The Fields of Athenry – a song about famine and hunger – prompting some players to stop and join in, draping their meaty arms around the elderly choristers.
One day out from the biggest rugby clash in recent history, the roar of the Lions is more ferocious than ever. And by Saturday night’s match, 25,000 fans in red will be in the stadium or the streets of the city of sails.
“Whatever the outcome, we’ve got a little bit more hope now and the Lions have raised their game, ” said Mark Burrow of the choir. “New Zealanders have got great voices actually. We’ve been impressed. It’s the passion they’ve got behind them.”
Nine kilometres from the city centre, in a muddy and somewhat gloomy Alexandra Park, Nick and Vanessa Francis from south Wales have holed up in their campervan, bedding down with hot tea and a stack of spy novels to pass the time before the big game. Hundreds of campervans are arriving in Auckland today, massing together in the parks for sausage sandwiches and beer under the Milky Way.
Lions campers paid NZ$100 (€63) per van a night to park in this suburban park, a pricey fee that has raised both Lions’ and New Zealanders’ eyebrows.
The Francises spent five years saving for this trip, by keeping a two gallon (7.5 litre) empty bottle of whisky in the kitchen and slotting £2 coins in whenever they had them available. After five years they had nearly £3000, enough for tickets and a no-frills trip.
“I heard these two old guys at the train station today and they said, ‘Well I still haven’t seen it – the All Blacks lose’,” Nick Francis says with a laugh.
“The rugby fans here are very knowledgeable. In New Zealand 95 per cent of the population follow rugby. Wherever we have been in the country, Kiwis come up to us and launch straight into rugby talk – it’s great.”
Down at the waterfront, hundreds of people have crowded out O’Hagan’s bar from breakfast time, swaying in pools of water on the concrete to a live band.
Duty manager Callum Brydon says tomorrow he anticipates being greeted by throngs of fans at 8am, eager for their first Guinness to kick off match day.
Drinking laws are much stricter in New Zealand, says Brydon, and he routinely has to turn Lions drinkers down, though there has been no “real trouble” throughout the tour.
“It has been chaos for weeks now, but fun,” says Brydon. “You get cut off a lot earlier here. It is much harder to get drunk in New Zealand, so that’s something I’ve had to explain to people, but they’ve been fine with it.
“If the Lions lose on Saturday, I don’t think it will disappoint the fans too much. Winning one was a stellar effort because they’re playing against the best team in the world on home soil. I honestly think the Lions fans will be happy either way.”
Although New Zealand police won’t reveal how many officers will be on duty in Auckland on Saturday night, Supt Sandra Manderson, the national commander for major sporting events, says the tour has been largely free of disorderly behaviour or major criminal incidents, with just 10 people arrested at the nine matches so far, including one streaker in Auckland.
However, two weeks ago at the last Test match in Auckland, a teenage girls’ acrobatics team reported being verbally abused by Lions fans, who yelled out lewd comments during their performance. The incident was the first real upsetting event of the tour and the acrobatics team’s second appearance this Saturday has been cancelled due to health and safety concerns, the Spinoff website reported.
The incident appears to be a one-off for the tour, according to police, who have received no reports of similar behaviour from Lions fans anywhere in the country.
“NZ police has been very pleased with the behaviour of crowds during the Lions series so far, both at the matches themselves and in and around city centres before and afterwards,” says Manderson.
“Visiting Lions fans and local fans alike have embraced the spirit of what is a very special occasion for New Zealand and there has been a very low level of disorder associated with the games.”
At the last Test, around 8,000 people walked the fan trail from Queens Wharf to Eden Park and on Saturday that number is expected to climb further as more New Zealanders join the procession for the historic showdown.
There are 18,000 rain ponchos being stored to hand out to walkers, with giant urns of free coffee spread out along the 4.8km route, which will take fans through the pulsing heart of Auckland central: past the Korean fast-food joints and fashion chain stores of Queen Street, and the sex shops and sushi bars of K Road; along the wide, grey industrial stretch of Great North Road to Eden Park, which seats 50,000.
Burrow hopes his choir won’t be sung out by the time the game starts. But if they are, this decider – after six weeks touring New Zealand in the dead of winter – is the end of the road. And on Sunday his squad – and the squad – can rest.
“It will be a great match, whatever the outcome,” says Burrows. “Whoever wins, wins. In the end it’s a game for fun.”