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.
Land of the Long Black Cloud
June 2. Auckland International Airport.
The depression starts the minute I land. It’s chilly, raining hard and locals dressed in black, or in various shades of sombre, make it even gloomier. The only splashes of colour are the red and navy blue uniforms – jerseys and matching showerproof tops – of androgynous Lions fans, all with the wary bemusement of Brits abroad for the first time.
In 1977 it rained virtually non-stop, the Lions lost 3-1 and three months of monsoon made them so despondent they got beat by Fiji on the way home. Is the godawful weather going to be a 16th man for the All Blacks this time round? The Lions might need some of Sir Clive’s famous fine detail here, but has he thought of this? I saw no Bad Weather Therapist listed among his 29-strong backroom staff in the official booklet (though there’s a functionary for virtually everything else). If must be difficult to keep players in positive mode after moving out of one winter straight into another. The further south we go the worse it will get.
I write all this down, deluding myself I might put it to Woodward at the first question and answer session. I wouldn’t dare do that. In today’s world of rugby press conferences a journalist has to stand up in full view, announce who he is and who he works for before asking the question. What do I say: ‘Connor, author, here with the intention of shafting you, Sir Clive?’
A large Maori lady blocks the exit from immigration.
‘You are here on business it says here. What sort of business?’
‘I’m a sort of rugby writer.’
‘Well everyone has to do something.’
High above us, with what’s best described as an embarrassed leer, All Black fly-half Dan Carter, wearing only his underpants, stares down from a giant billboard.
June 2, Auckland Harbour.
Sir Clive and his mobile city are encamped in the Hilton close by the site of the Rainbow Warrior atrocity of 1985, a story so sensational at the time that it even managed to get All Black selections off the front pages. The hotel had been built to look like a large cruise ship, with a square ‘prow’ and portholes for windows. It juts far out into the harbour and resembles, dare I say it, the Titanic?
The lobby is full of Maori heavies with black suits and curly-wurly earpieces, all carrying on like Secret Service agents awaiting the arrival of the President. They demand accreditation from us and everyone else, even a 75-year-old couple from Kansas on their final world tour.
‘What makes a bunch of rugby players so goddam important?’ demands grandpops when he’s finally released.
Good question, to which few could ever supply an answer.
The few players we see are in full professional rugby mode: anonymous, squeaky clean, interchangeable, like Stepford Wives on the supermarket run. They are trailed by three men in official red and blue tracksuits. Their build – less than medium height, wiry to muscular – the military watches and their air of heightened cool gives them away. Even the way they walk and, especially, the way they stare at you. Almost as if they are working out the quickest way of taking you out. They smell of regular army, possibly ex-SAS, or ex-Marine, don’t like having their pictures taken and won’t give out their names. I christen them Bravos 1, 2 and 3. There appears to be a chain of command here. Bravo 1 tends to stand around with his arms folded; 2 and 3 are the foot soldiers. When the armed terrorists burst in, they will be the ones to fling themselves in front of Jonny, or Gavin, or whoever.
In 2001, the Lions baggage master was a genial, middle-aged Irishman called Pat O’Keefe, who did the job almost single-handedly. Now we have a ‘kit technician’ and a ‘kit assistant’, Dave ‘Reg’ Tennison and David ‘Don’ Pearson. If they are qualified baggage masters my name is Andy McNab.
June 3, Auckland.
The New Zealand Herald headlines a story about former All Black lock Norm Maxwell, who has ‘come out’ about his drinking problems. Maxwell had put his hand through a plate-glass window – a popular cry for help from bibulous rugby players – and by way of penance is warning the world about the dangers of booze. He blames being an AB and the insecurity of fame, but promises to ‘get a grip’.
Maxwell’s confessions coincide with an interview with another former All Black, Norm Hewitt, a self-confessed former arse-hole who by his account, also found it hard to handle celebrity. Hewitt, a carouser of a slightly earlier vintage than Maxwell, was noted for his confrontations on, and off, the field. It transpires his nastiness was fuelled by something stronger than carbohydrate loading drinks.
Instead of sessions at AA, however, he has taken up ballroom dancing and, for a former hooker at any rate, is rather good at it. He is as fast on his feet as he once was with his fists. He has seen the light, not through God, but through see-through shirts and sequins. Norm Hewitt, Norm Maxwell. Wasn’t the resident boozer in Cheers called Norm? Never play poker with a man named Doc, or upset anyone called Rocky but above all, never go for a drink with a Norm.
Given the choice, there’s no player here I’d share a pint with; the rationale for many journalists in deciding who was a good chap and who wasn’t. Dallaglio? Always ‘good for a quote’ and at least he seems to have retained his individuality. But he was banished from the checklist as soon as I heard that he’s notoriously tight with the shekels. You might finish up having to pay for everything and that, where I come from, is on a par with house-lifting.
I can’t pick the serious smoker and drinkers (no Rob Henderson or Jason Leonard here) but there will be some shagging, of that there is no doubt. In the Auckland Hilton the players have all been allotted single rooms so there is no inhibiting presence of a room-mate. In the past that was as good as two cups of bromide.
Who will wear the Yellow Jersey of the Champion of Libido? The good money is on Leicester’s blond flanker Lewis Moody, although on most tours the serial shaggers tend to be ugly props. They don’t discriminate. They go for quantity, rather than quality. BUT … something else for Sir Clive to consider: most hotels in staid old New Zealand have pay-for-view hard-core porn available. And we all know what mummy used to say about that.
The Lions are training at Takapunu Rugby Club, a stone’s throw from Auckland Harbour Bridge. They have taken over the place for the duration. During an extended lament the Takapunu grounds man tells me that only Lions players and staff will be allowed on his little plot. No games will be played there; no Takapunu member can set foot on the sacred turf. And all the club house windows overlooking the training paddock have been blacked out. As we speak Bravos 2 and 3 are conducting a sweep of a nearby copse of trees, like grunts on a search and destroy mission in Vietnam.
The Lions of 2001 had also thought of precautions ahead of the final, deciding Test in Sydney. Unfortunately for them, the training ground at Brookvale Oval in Manly was overlooked by large blocks of flats and, or so the story goes, a telephoto lens and a lip-reader cracked the Lions’ line-out codes.
Nothing so dastardly is going to occur on Sir Clive’s watch.
The session is what is called ‘vision only’ in the vernacular of the Lions’ PR machine. In other words, 20 minutes to watch the warm-up session and nothing else. When the serious business starts – running attacking lines, defensive drills and line-out and scrummaging practice – we’ll all be shown the door. This doesn’t go down too well with snappers looking for something more meaningful than players touching their toes, coaches ruminating on the halfway line or Jonny Wilkinson going through his interminable kicking routines.
Nor does it go down well with the supplier of the tour training paraphernalia, the former England and Lions lock Nigel Horton. Horton, a large, shambling figure with a crushing handshake, the vaguely eccentric and unnerving manner of most former international forwards, supplies the scrummaging machines, tackle bags and kicking nets through his Predator Company. He is hoping to land a franchise with England and as most of the Twickenham coaching hierarchy are involved here, he must stand a good chance. A few photographs of the tourists using his equipment for publicity purposes would surely help?
No chance. One of his scrummaging machines stands forlornly and unused by the side of the pitch while his other supplies, some of it quite revolutionary he claims, remain hidden in the back of a large truck parked at the far side of the ground.
Horton was injured early on in 1977, to be replaced by Bill Beaumont, the current Lions manager. If fate had dealt different cards, would N Horton have been manager of the Lions and W Beaumont a humble supplier of training gear?
Horton, like most of us, retains a sniffy contempt for the modern lot, so we swap tales about the good old days. I tell him, a story I’d heard about a Calcutta Cup match and his second cap in the ‘70s. Gordon Brown and fellow Scotland lock Alastair McHarg were going to blood the newcomer in the usual way back then. At the first line-out, Brown was to get underneath him while McHarg smacked him in the gob. Come the line-out, the Scots went for the ball instead; McHarg leapt high for the catch and was still on his way down when Horton landed a haymaker on his jaw.
Horton laughs at this one all right, but with a frown and the unease of a man hearing about it for the first time.
‘Who told you that one,’ he asks.
‘Broon,’ I say.
‘Ah,’ says Horton, leaving me to decide if it was true, or not.
The local age-group players, most of them Maori, are supported by 200 or more enthusiastic parents, who don’t seem to mind being demoted to the outside fields. Some of the Under-8s are built like well-fed teenagers, though like most kids that age they seldom pass or tackle below the waist.
‘Get stuck in, Taka,’ shout the parents. ‘Get the ball. Knock him over.’
Joan, one of the mums, says that Takapuna may be one of Auckland’s smaller clubs, but can still field up to 20 teams over a weekend. Ponsonby, just up the road, can put out 40 or so 15-a-side teams every Saturday.
Fitness trainer Dave Redding is showing the kit technician how to erect the kicking net as Kit Technician 2 ambles over towards us, looking pointedly at his watch. Our time is up. The Lions players haven’t got out of their tracksuits. Two of the props, John Hayes and Graham Rowntree, still have their specs on.
As we are shepherded out by Kit Technician 2 he fails to spot a large gap in the fencing from where a dozen local kids were watching the Lions in action. Naturally I don’t tell him and even felt an odd thrill of delight to find out that, despite all the security, Woodward’s redoubt had been breached by eight-year-olds.
Images: David Gibson – www.fotosportuk.photoshelter.com