With the 2017 British and Irish Lions tour of New Zealand only months away, this is a retrospective of the last tour there. Jeff Connor, former chief rugby writer for the Scotland on Sunday newspaper, followed the tourists throughout. His book, ‘One Knight, Forty-Five Lions: With Sir Clive Woodward in New Zealand’ was, for various reasons, never published. But it was written and here, exclusive to The Offside Line readers and in full gory detail, is the untold story of the Lions, 2005.
Once were warriors?
June 11. Hamilton.
As captain Jono Gibbes, hobbling like an arthritic pensioner, led his team-mates on a lap of honour around Waikato Stadium I wondered what Kevin Tamati would make of this. Tamati, for one, certainly knew there was a time when people from his race didn’t puff out their chests and shout: “Look at me, I’m Maori and proud of it”.
I had first met him in the autumn on 2000 at the Posthouse in Carlisle. He was there as a liaison officer for Maori at the invitation of Rugby League World Cup. Or rather: “I rang up and begged for any sort of work to do with the tournament. When they asked me to join the Maori, I thought: ‘That’ll do me’.
At the time Tamati was a Cheshire taxi driver, though once better known as the middle one-third of a formidable Warrington front row, the others being props Bob Jackson of England and Les Boyd of Australia. The trio terrorised opposing League sides in the mid-80s. Tamati, it’sd fair to say, was Britain’s original Maori Warrior. Few had seen his like before in terms of ferocity and commitment. The power, the passion and occasional rage seemed to come from some deep, hidden well. As it turned out, it was all about being Maori.
The incident that in many ways defined him took place at Lang Park, Brisbane in 1985 just after he and Australia prop Greg Dowling, were sent off for the sort of confrontation that was once almost compulsory in Kiwi-Kangaroo Tests.
‘I knew it was wrong,’ he said. ‘I knew it wasn’t a good advert for the game. But with all that crap he was throwing at me, I wasn’t prepared to take a backward step: I had taken that shit all my life. At school when people turned round and said: “You, you are just a Maori”, I used to fly off the handle and lash out with my fists because I knew what they were saying was poison.’
And what happened with Dowling in the end?
“We had a set-to. I kicked his arse. We were walking off, and he went on and on: “You fucking black bastard”…all those things. When we got to the gate, there was only room for one at a time, and I went first and that was when the contact came. He put his hand on my shoulder, and that’s when I said: “Fuck you”. But then when I went out to play for my country or my people, I was prepared to die: I treated it like a war. I am a Maori warrior. My people have never taken a backward step, and I will never take a backward step.’
Tamati grew up in Hawkes Bay and recalls: ‘I soon found out that growing up a Maori you were always looked on as second class – in your own country. I tried to hide the fact as much as I could. It was very difficult to understand the pakeha (white man’s) way. You’re brought up in a Maori community, but then have to learn the pakeha way of life. Mum and dad didn’t speak Maori to us at all; it was all English. Mum told me that when they were at school, if they were caught speaking Maori, they were beaten. That was the racism and bigotry that dominated my parents’ lives.
‘It was taken for granted, too, that if you were Maori you were going to be the next labourers, the next factory workers, all the low-life jobs. Until I was in my 20s, it was a case of not being proud in who I am and what I am. Then I realised I’m different, but no reason to be ashamed.’
Like many of his race, Tamati found equality on a rugby field, a rugby league field that is.
‘Even at rugby, there was a time when you had to be something special before you were even looked at for an All Black trial or All Black teams. In the 1960s and 1970s it was believed that you only got into the All Blacks if you had a professional status: farmer, lawyer or something like that. If you were a factory worker, forget it. A lot of Maori guys were discriminated against.
Guys like Waka Nathan (the great former All Black flanker) were so good they couldn’t be left out. To be honest, he was my hero; I always believed I had the ability to be the next Waka. But in those days you had to be exceptional.
‘Did you see that film Once Were Warriors? That in a lot of cases is a true way of life for some Maori people (the ‘hero’ of Once Were Warriors is a drunken, unemployed wife-beater) and the upbringing I was familiar with; that film did bring back old memories.
‘But it did nark me that the whites in New Zealand would see that film and say: “Yeah, right, that’s your typical Maori. They all get on the piss, and they all beat their wives up.” But I’ve seen whites beat their wives up – wives are mistreated everywhere. That’s life round the world. Alcohol and high spirits do not go together.’
One night Tamati picked up a fare who decided to enliven his journey home at the expense of a taxi driver with exotic looks and a strange accent. It was a big mistake.
‘There may be something childlike in the Maori,’ said Tamati. ‘My wife tells me I’m just a big kid … but when I get mad, sense goes out the door.’
‘And what happened?’ I asked, despite having guessed the answer.
‘Perchoooooon!’ he said, mimicking the sound of a gun going off; all in all, I thought, a fair description of Maori meeting the Lions and Gethin Jenkins in Waikato Stadium.
Having spent five depressing years covering the Scotland national side I knew something about post-mortems (aka Murrayfield press conferences). There will be ‘positives’ to take from defeat and ‘videos of the match will be examined closely’ (what on earth did we do before videos?) The management and players will have to prepare themselves for some mild criticism, too. Some will take it, others won’t, in the latter case the captain.
O’Driscoll, to put it mildly, looked totally pissed off. I recognized that, too. Journalists who haven’t played at a meaningful level don’t have the right to criticize players. In the end O’Driscoll went through motions, with occasional silent pleas for help from his No.2, Paul O’Connell. To be brutally honest, PoC would have made a better Lions captain than BoD.
A statistician (like cricket, there’s dozens of them) tells us that the 19-13 win by Maori was their first in 75 years. I was more interested in finding out the last time a Lions Test side failed to field a Scot, either as starter or on the bench. With Taylor on his way home that left us with two: Cusiter and Bulloch and there’s no way they are going to make the Tests. At least they can’t be blamed for defeat; though I’m sure some of the Twickers Mafia will try.
June 15. Wellington.
Back home we had the War of the Roses, and Americans the Union and Confederacy. In New Zealand, apparently, North Island and South Island have ongoing disagreements.
The first clue is from an elderly lady I get talking to on the flight. We discuss friends and family and rugby until, quite out of the blue, she announces that she hates ‘those money-grabbing ass-holes up north’. This is a new one on me and she explains: ‘All our power is sent north and we don’t get help mending the roads either. We’re supposed to be from the same country, which isn’t true at all.’
Our taxi driver has a large sign on his window saying ‘No Aucklanders’. Does this, I wonder, apply at All Blacks training camps? Do southerners there resent northerners and vice-versa and none of them feel minded to pass to the ‘enemy’? If so, this is one for Alastair Campbell, the man to stir a bit of animosity among people who should be on the same side. The way things are going the Lions are going to need all the dubiousity they can get.
But of course the minds of Clive and Alastair are on other matters.
One end of the street by The InterContinental, Wellington’s only five-star establishment, is barricaded and a note from the hotel management awaits all guests: “During your stay with us you may recognise a team of very well-known people, who have chosen this hotel for the same reasons as you – excellent location, excellent service and attention to detail. We ask that you help us maintain this atmosphere for all our guests by resisting the temptation to ask for autographs or photographs while this team is with us.”
One elderly Lions supporter, keen to take a photograph of some Lions squad members is then warned that his camera could be confiscated. The firms that share the same building are sent letters to tell them to beware of ‘tailgaters’ – or else. Things really got out of hand then. The Kiwi media hear about it and the whole ludicrous thing is embellished into an international incident: something akin to the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo. The hotel manageress is then forced to go on the record and tell the world that ‘precautions are no stricter than other visiting dignitaries’ and that ‘we normally close down lifts and escort visiting dignitaries to their rooms’.
Dignitaries? Men who dress in shorts and tight jerseys and chase an oddly-shaped ball around a field for a living are now dignitaries. What will happen when Prince William arrives? Presumably they will close down Wellington completely.
Mick Cleary, of the Daily Telegraph, who appears to be our un-anointed shop steward, then decides he should takes the mic (at Joe Locke’s briefing) and tells us he has ‘had a positive meeting with the Lions management’ and that they would now allow us more player access and, what is more, offer us seats on their charter flights.
That will be the day.
I do a question and answer session for allblacks.com and offer what I (naively) see as constructive criticism about the unwieldiness of the touring party and Woodward’s problems with getting everyone game time. The piece goes in uncensored but a day later the guy who runs the site gets a phone call from his superior warning him that it was ‘too near the knuckle’.
Murray Deaker, the nearest thing New Zealand has to a ‘giant of broadcasting’, interviews Buck Shelford – along with a netball player called Irene Van Dyck. Deaker describes her as ‘one of our greatest ever sportspeople – after Colin Meads, Sir Bob Charles and Richard Hadlee’ when, in fact she is from South Africa. That isn’t going to stop Murray.
‘She got the freedom of life she needed in New Zealand,’ he says.
I go on the net and read the latest on England’s World Cup winning No.7 Neil Back, just back from a four week suspension for punching Joe Worsley in the Zurich Grand Final and now 36 years of age. Most experts have convinced themselves that he is the answer to the Lions problems at the breakdown – though they are not as convinced as Neil Back is.
When the match starts the Wellington theme song turns out to be Gladiator. I wonder who will unleash hell. Well it won’t be Jonny Wilkinson (his first game of the tour). He tries a drop goal within 30 seconds of the start and is roundly booed for it. When the Wellington No 8 makes a long burst out of his own half the obvious cover is Wilkinson, who steps to one side and leaves it to someone else. Not the Jonny we have come to know and admire down the years and definitely not a No 10 who is going to hold up against one D Carter.
The Lions won (an ugly 23–6) and it was about then that I started to pray that they would be whitewashed. This debacle, and Woodward’s control of it, must NEVER be seen as a template for the future.
Images: David Gibson – http://fotosportuk.photoshelter.com/gallery-list