By late Sunday afternoon I felt like I had just been through my very own sequel to Planes, Trains and Automobiles only rather than trying to make it back in time for Thanksgiving I was trying to make it to Auckland in time for the Lions third and final deciding Test against the All Blacks.
The whole trip was a bit of last-minute decision, I had never intended to go to the game but then again, along with many others, I hadn’t expected the Lions series to be level at one apiece going into the final test. It was the last week of my club rugby competition and therefore would have been my last game of club rugby in New Zealand, but the lure of a first series win since the great Lions tour of 1971 proved too enticing and with the approval of my coach I booked flights to Auckland on Tuesday evening, ruling myself out of selection for the weekends match. Even at this stage my original plan wasn’t to go to the test but instead to simply be in and amongst it, surrounded by Lions supporters in the official fan-zone and soak up some of the atmosphere. But once again the chance to witness history proved too great and I managed to get my hands on one of the last remaining tickets to the game late on Thursday night. With all the components in place I just needed to wake up early on Saturday morning, drive to Nelson and fly up the Auckland, easy…
3AM Saturday morning my alarm goes off and half an hour later I’m leaving house with my Lions shirt on and a two-hour drive across the hills to Nelson airport ahead of me. This is where things begin to get interesting, failing at the first hurdle, my car didn’t start. Thankfully being a country boy from a small village in Canterbury, my housemate doesn’t believe in locking doors let alone removing his keys from his ignition. So I jumped into his car, drove to the 24hr garage in town, purchased some jump leads and then jump-started mine. Problem solved I was on the road within twenty minutes still with plenty of time to make my flight.
Recently I had swapped cars, my beloved Mitsubishi challenger had been sold and in turn I had been given the club car, a beaten up old runaround that seemed to be on its last legs. Turns out that’s exactly what it was and an hour into my journey there was an audible bang from the engine, the oil light came on and there was now some very loud, constant knocking. In most situations I’d have pulled over and called the AA (or my dad) but no phone signal or service put paid to that. Unfortunately I’d also already passed Rai Valley (the only settlement before you reach the winding hill roads) and besides it was half four in the morning and nothing was open anyway, so I had no choice but to try and nurse the car to the Airport. Much like a wounded animal that bolts once it has been shot, it didn’t take long for the car to come to a stuttering halt, the Mount Richmond hills had proved too much. At this point there was only one option so I grabbed my bag out of the car, locked it up and began walking, leaving the car at on the side of the road, where it is still sitting to this day!
I was half an hours drive from the airport, roughly twenty-two miles. I had an hour and a half until my flight departed so even the best marathon runner in the world wouldn’t be able to make it on foot. Amazingly (at this time of the morning) after only ten minutes a car drove past and mercifully pulled over. After explaining my situation the bloke offered to drive me all the way to the airport, legend is an understatement. With his help I made it to the airport with twenty minutes to spare, after a hectic morning I’d made it and that’s all that mattered, Auckland was now only a flight away. Adding one more hurdle, my flight was actually delayed for two hours due to adverse weather conditions which after the morning I’d already had seemed but a minor inconvenience. Once I touched down in Auckland it was just a matter of jumping on the train into town and thus completing the set; planes, trains and automobiles.
Ultimately seeing the Lions play in that third test lived up to all expectations and if anything, was only made more memorable following the various trials and tribulations which I went through in order to get there. It is a 24 hours that I will never forget.
This wasn’t my first Lions game of the series, in fact my brother (Dan) and I had spent the previous two weeks chasing the Lions tour around the North Island, probably a once in a lifetime road trip. Driving for me, has always been about just getting from A to B, much to the lament of my father. In fact cars and motorsports have never been something I have had much interest in, I didn’t bother learning to drive until I was twenty-one. Since then driving has been a necessity of everyday life rather than something I looked forward to doing. However, having spent the past month driving over 3000km around both the North and South Islands I can finally say I have discovered the joys of driving. It is a place like no other with roads to match, many of which wouldn’t look out of place on an episode of Top Gear. I’d liken it to a breakfast cereal variety pack. There is a bit of everything and it caters for all tastes; gravel tracks, mountain passes, coastal roads, expansive straights and the odd motorway, all of which run along a backdrop of scenery which can only be described as a phenomenon. Couple this with the fact that you’re a driving between Lions matches and it makes for cracking couple of weeks.
The Lions tour itself is a sporting enigma, happening once every four years and returning to a single country every twelve, it is a huge occasion for both sides of the pond. The travelling support for the lions is so strong that it felt as if we outnumbered the kiwi fans in the stadiums, bringing the home advantage with us. Instead of the isolation of away fans in a foreign country there is such support and (pardon the pun) such a roar from the Lions fans that it feels as if the games are being played at Twickenham. The ‘Sea of Red’ is unavoidable. For the duration of the tour wherever we went we could be sure to bump into some likeminded fans be it English, Welsh, Scottish or Irish, we were all there for the same reason and it created an atmosphere which is unrivalled. There seemed to be a bit of an unwritten rule that at least one of your party had to be wearing some form of Lions stash at any one point. An easy identifier for all other Lions fans to see which immediately opened up avenues of conversation.
Another impressive feature of the Lions support is the sheer variety of people; fathers and sons, husbands and wives, groups of friends and solo travellers, no demographic goes un-represented. There is however, one particular social group which acted as the staple tourist, groups of middle-aged men reliving their younger days trying to drink and party like they once did and more often than not finding out that they don’t quite have the stamina they used too. But that is the beauty of such an enigmatic event as the Lions tour, it not only brings together four nations but it brings together people. It is a catalyst to catch up with old friends, on what for many is a once in a lifetime trip. My brother and I for example, are good mates but had the Lions tour not been on at the same time as I was living in New Zealand I couldn’t imagine he would have visited so readily.
For me, the most impressive thing about the Lions tour is the atmosphere amongst fans from both teams; there isn’t a hint of animosity or need to separate the two. One of my favorite moments was spent at the FMG Stadium in the standing terraces among the die-hard Chiefs fans, they were simply brilliant. With cow bells ringing in our ears and chant after chant coming from the Chiefs support I don’t think I have ever laughed so much whilst watching live sport. When I went to the third test I sat alone but it didn’t feel like it. Within minutes of sitting down the Irishmen to my left had passed me a beer and the kiwis in front had already started with the banter, at that moment it didn’t matter who you were, you were a Lions fan and therefore you were welcome.
Rugby people make good people. Dan said it after we’d been to the first test match and the Lions Tour couldn’t encapsulate this phrase any better. Events like this could not and would not happen in football. Many will argue that the underlying animosity held between football supporters is what makes the atmospheres better at football than rugby, and in all fairness it is probably true to some extent. But offer me a game where passion manifests itself in violence and the separation of fans (the recent Euros a prime example*) or a game where the opposing fans can sit together with a beer in hand, I choose that every time. The fans are no less passionate they just go about it in a different way. At a base level regardless of affiliation everyone at these matches are just fans of good rugby. Read any recap of the Lions tour in newspapers or online and I’d bet they will mention how great an atmosphere it was and how it truly is a one of a kind tour. Having been a part of this one I can safely say I will be booking my tickets to the 2021 South Africa tour as soon as they become available.
Besides going to a number of the matches Dan and I did manage to see a fair bit of the North Island as well. As I’ve written in earlier blogs, much of what New Zealand has to offer as a holiday destination comes in the form of nature and the stunning beauty of it. Prior to the trip I think it was fair to say that Dan wasn’t too much of an outdoorsman. He is someone who prefers his home comforts, someone who is used to a certain way of living. So I always knew it was going to be a bit of a challenge to take him out of his comfort zone and show him a true vision of what this amazing country has to offer and a number of the activities we had planned were going to do this nicely; whitewater rafting, luging and jet boating for example. However some of the other days where we spent much of it hunting for waterfalls (which I was sure were just around the next corner) or trekking alongside Lake Taupo, might have proved to be a bit of a harder sell. However, whilst always letting me lead the way, he did fully immerse himself into my explorer’s mentality and I’m pretty sure he enjoyed it. There was always a slight air of relief as we reached some of the bigger towns or cities but by the end of the trip I believe he had a new appreciation of nature, (even to the point where he was finding it hard to maintain his persona of a grumpy old man, which he plays up to so regularly) Bear Grylls he isn’t but Teddy-Bear Grylls maybe.
*I am well aware that it is a massively sweeping statement to say all football fans are hooligans obviously they are not, but unfortunately as is so often the case the minority ruin it for the majority, thankfully that minority has not made it onto the Lions tour.