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.
Ferdinand the Bull
Auckland Hilton, June 6
Why do the UK rugby correspondents, aka the Twickers Mafia, think the sun shines out of Woodward’s ass? All I see is a man who wears his ambition like a suit and for whom image is more important than words. He doesn’t seem to have changed since 2001 when Graham Henry beat him to the Lions’ job. Woodward followed around that tour like a petulant Banquo’s ghost, rubbishing Henry at every step and even, memorably, posting (unasked) his own critique of the tour to rugby agents, the England’s RFU board and, naturally, selected members of the Twickers Mafia. Four years later he is still besotted by the need to prove himself better than Henry. The decision to bring along 45 players, a small army of support staff and a political street fighter who knows absolutely nothing about rugby, may have something to do with that.
Alastair Campbell seems to have convinced himself that a Lions tour is like a general election and Woodward is his Blair simulacrum. One example of this: Ireland’s Geordan Murphy, who has a diary in the Guardian, talks of going out ‘for a few beers’ with team-mates. In the paper ‘going for a few beers’ had become ‘going for a stroll’. This immediately became the vernacular among the thirsty hacks, as in: ‘Fancy a few strolls tonight?’
Campbell and sidekick Louisa Cheetham should spend time with Joe Locke, their opposite number in the All Blacks camp, and see his examples of constructive PR. We all know the All Blacks are on a charm offensive in an effort to win the 2011 Rugby World Cup, but Locke makes a habit of being friendly and effusive with everyone – even the plebs like me. He always seems genuinely keen to do you a favour and never forgets a face or a name. So far, I have met Cheetham five or six times and she still doesn’t know me from Adam.
At the All Blacks’ training session at North Harbour, Henry proves the point, religiously signing autographs for 50 minutes. He’s given a hard time by an eight-year-old who wants to know why he left out Joe Rokocoko, but Henry ruffles the boy’s head to earns himself a new fan for life.
With time to kill, I decide a haircut is in order. The barber/owner is a Palestinian called Hannan and he tells me, proudly, he cuts the hair of the All Blacks when they are in town.
I think of Ali Williams and Doug Howlett and their racy hairstyles and tell him: ‘Well, you have a lot to answer for, then.’ Hannan is outraged, probably because ‘a lot to answer for’ means something else in Arabic.
‘Maybe you have a word with Sir Clive and I cut the hair of the Lions?’ he asks after he has calmed down. I tell him I will do my best but not to hold his hopes too high. I doubt that a Palestinian who shaves customers with a straight razor (I trusted him that far) would get within a mile of Jonny and Co. Anyway, I am sure there is someone qualified to cut hair among the Woodward staff. My bet is that David ‘Don’ Pearson does a mean military short back and sides.
At lunch I am presented with a bill containing a 15% ‘holiday surcharge’. Naturally, I want an explanation and a rather embarrassed waiter tells that it’s because it’s the Queen’s birthday. So while many Kiwis would happily get rid of her Majesty, restaurants and shops will load your bill using her as an excuse. In any case, New Zealand seems to see itself as a part of Asia now, rather than a member of the Commonwealth. Smith & Caughey’s, a large department store on Queen Street is staffed almost exclusively by Japanese although, for anyone with memories of WW2 in the Pacific, there’s a sign outside telling us ‘this establishment is New Zealand owned’.
Safe in the hotel bar I watch the All Blacks warm up for the Lions with a 91-0 beating of Fiji at North Harbour Stadium, running in 15 tries in the process. Sitiveni Sivivatu, who scored four of them, is described by one of the Kiwi commentators as ‘our adopted son’.
‘I feel ashamed to be a Fijian,’ says a gentleman in his 60s in the lift. He looks like an ex-player, with a warrior’s moustache and erect bearing. He tells me he had come all the way from Suva with his son. Earlier, I had seen the hotel receptionist giving him a hard time because he didn’t have a credit card and wanted to pay, in advance, in cash.
I ask him his opinion of Sivivatu, also Suva-born. ‘Good luck to him,’ he replies, without much in the way of conviction.
The best parts of this tour are the journeys, far away from the bullshit and obfuscation that distinguishes the Lions camp. There is a slight hold-up in Auckland at the start of the drive to New Plymouth and the Taranaki game as an army of traffic cops clear out three lanes to make way for the Lions on their way to the airport. In New Zealand, this is known as the Green Wave, apparently. After that it’s five hours past wooded gorges not unlike the Vaucluse, winding Alpine passes, glorious winter sunshine and, finally, on arrival at sea level close by Awakino a fantastic view of Mount Taranaki peeping through the clouds. I almost feel sorry for the Lions squad that they are missing put on this in their chartered plane.
We arrive at Yarrow Stadium in time for the Lions captain’s run, but I’m side-lined by a meeting with John Mitchell, the stadium manager. He tells me, almost bursting out of his skin with pride, that his two sons are on the bench against the tourists. In the background, the NZRU and Mitchell’s aides are busy preparing for the big event. There’s a motorised bull called Ferdinand with a driver inside who blows out steam at the touch of a button and a papier-mâché model of Mount Taranaki. Apparently, Ferdinand’s last driver quit because he wasn’t seeing enough of the match action.
Taranaki are part of the Wellington Hurricanes franchise in Super 12 and their best-known players are captain and lock Paul Tito and former All Black Gordon Slater, a prop. Tito, a Māori with ginger hair is a raw-boned, ungainly figure with a disarming line in off-the-cuff candour. Of Slater, who had played against the Lions in 1993, he says: ‘Look at this daft bugger.’
Outside, a light aeroplane passes overhead trailing a banner: ‘Taranaki welcomes Lions fans’ and finally, to the tune of The Four Seasons on the tannoy and as a sudden biting cold announces the setting of the sun, the Lions shamble out.
The Captain’s Run, as ever, consists of players walking round the pitch or sitting in the stand taking in the views and the atmosphere. Hayes and Rowntree keep their specs on.
But there is some entertainment out in the middle where midweek defensive coach Mike Ford is showing tour manager Bill Beaumont how to catch and pass the ball one-handed. Beaumont’s arse looks twice the size of his playing days (and that is saying something). Naturally he fails miserably, but he still gives the snappers his best buffoonish grin. Note here: that’s the first smile I’ve seen from Bill B in a week. Maybe he’s not enjoying this trip, either.
As for Ford, the last time I’d seen him on a rugby field was at Wembley in ’85 when he was scrum-half for Wigan in the Challenge Cup final against Hull, a game still rated as one of the greatest ever. We come from the same part of North Manchester, a couple of miles apart and played – in different eras – for the same amateur rugby league side, just outside Oldham. I’d love to get a talk with him – to ease the homesickness if nothing else – and resolve to ask Louisa Cheetham. I want to know how he rates Jonny Wilkinson alongside his Wigan stand-off 20 years ago, Brett Kenny. My opinion is that Wilkinson isn’t fit to lace Kenny’s boots, but I doubt if Ford will say that. Louisa duly pulls out her little notebook, writes down my name and mobile number (for the fifth time) and says she will be in touch. I don’t hold out much hope.
By the stadium tunnel a young, local fan is begging Bravo 2 for his autograph and I am close enough to hear his reply: ‘No, I’m not with the Lions, really’.
Young boy: ‘Why are you in Lions uniform then?’
Out of the mouths of babes….
Plymouth International Hotel, 6pm
A young New Zealand girl is serving behind the bar and we get into a conversation about Taranaki rugby. She is a season ticket holder, as are her parents and her grandparents, but they have been asked to vacate their seats to make way for visiting Lions fans. Amazingly, she isn’t too upset about this, more the fact that it would now cost her $75 (£30) to go, which is a fortune in New Zealand terms. Nor can her grandparents afford it. She tells me that skelpers got hold of most of the tickets. ‘This is a new thing in New Zealand rugby,’ she says sadly.
Beaumont leads Ford, Gareth Jenkins and Will Greenwood into the hotel ballroom for the pre-match press conference. I’d actually forgotten Greenwood was here but with 45 players and 20-odd staff it’s hard to keep an eye on everyone.
Billy B makes a little speech taken straight from Campbell’s diplomatic bag saying how great it is to be here and how they are looking forward to the game. Greenwood takes the floor. He is decisive and eloquent (another Lancastrian, please note) and, more importantly, all he says comes from the heart and not from a cue card.
In 1997, he had been badly injured in a midweek match (only prompt action by James Robson saved him) and he was invalided out of the 2001 Lions tour, too. He hasn’t played since May 17, but says, movingly: ‘I would be happy to be a bag carrier if the team is successful this time.’
He tells a great little story about his role in England’s 2003 World Cup final victory and, in particular, Wilkinson’s decisive drop goal.
‘In reality I was stood close by the ruck, but maybe when I am 55 I will have made the half-break or carried the ball on. A little later I may even have been the one who kicked the winning drop goal.’
All the Press questions are directed at him and in exasperation he asks: ‘Am I here on my own?’ Someone takes pity and makes the mistake of putting a question to Jenkins. At his last press conference I thought he’d been close to tears when he spoke of handing out the Lions jerseys before the Bay of Plenty match – but apparently he carries on like that all the time. So it proves here. He talks about scrums and line-outs as if describing a fatal illness in the family.
Ford calls him ‘Jenkins’, much to everyone’s amusement.
After much searching I finally find a gym. As with everywhere else in New Zealand, the owner immediately offers me free membership when he discovers I am involved – if that is the word – with the Lions. Taranaki, he tells me, is a family club and most of them are locals. Some have made it to Super 12 level, but still consider themselves part of the community. A local newspaper, the Taranaki Daily News, unearths a copy of the original Taranaki v Lions programme from 1904. The game ended in a 0-0 draw. Not much chance of that tonight.
The same newspaper also has a bizarre story about the ‘Barmy Army Management’ and how they had distanced themselves from a mock haka carried out by some supporters at the airport. This is the first time I was aware that rugby had its own Barmy Army and, even more surprised to find out there’s a Barmy Army ‘management’. Someone called Freddie Parker is the ‘project manager’ and he goes on TV to tell us that the use of the Barmy Army name ‘had not been authorised’.
How, I wonder, do you qualify as a member of the Barmy Army? Are there entrance exams and separate branches for cricket and football? Freddie is taken to task by the TV presenter, who suggests it could be ‘a bit of a scam’. Of course it is, Mister Presenter – like your show is a scam with all those Adidas logos, adverts featuring Graham Henry, the All Blacks and any Lion you could get hold of. At the end, an announcement heads the credits with the news that the ‘rugby presenters had been dressed by Gunn and Locke’. So, good luck to Freddie Parker whoever you are; every other fucker is making money out of this, so why not you?
Back in Auckland to find out that the team for the Maori game in Hamilton will be announced by e-mail, thus screwing things up for all the Saturday newspapers. Gareth Thomas and Jason Robinson arrive from the UK and Robinson, who had delayed travelling for a fortnight to be with his pregnant wife Amanda, is awake enough to sum up this particular Lions tour pretty quickly: ‘Josh has played well at full-back, and Geordan has had a great game against Taranaki. We are all going to be fighting for places … and 45 players into 15 shirts don’t go.’ I couldn’t have put that better myself.
Geech quietly slips in some bad news: Michael Owen, like fellow number eight Dallaglio, is heading home, this for the birth of his second child. At least this is a man who, like Robinson, seems to have his priorities right. Incredibly, the consensus is that all that travelling could cost Owen a Test place, though Woodward claims he will ‘remain on New Zealand time’ while away. How he was going to manage that was not specified, though I’d guess that the habits of new-born children of keeping you awake all night might have something to do with it.
June 10, Auckland Hilton.
Woodward, O’Driscoll and assistant assistant coach Eddie O’Sullivan (looking more and more like Gene Kelly the more I see of him) front up the morning press conference.
This time, to keep us all confused, it starts 20 minutes early and there are constant interruptions from late arrivals. Someone has also left the large windows at the rear of the hall open and Woodward’s pronouncements have to battle with the horns of the boats in the harbour – and the noise of some labourer dry-retching behind the screens in the background.
The big guns selected for the Maori match are wheeled out – props Julian White and Andy Sheridan (not the most fluent of talkers), Simon Shaw (better) and Scotland’s own Simon Taylor. Taylor’s 2001 tour of Australia ended prematurely after injury and he sat out most of the 2004-05 season with cruciate ligament damage. I always blame things like this on fitness coaches who insist on bulking up players. Taylor is some two stones heavier than 2001, when he first made his mark (outplaying Northampton‘s Pat Lam in a Heineken Cup match) and sportsmen who put on weight too quickly not only get slower but tend to break something somewhere; like a pet dog who is fed too much.
On the current tour Taylor has what is described as a ‘slight hamstring strain’.
‘Are you fit?’ I ask him before he goes in.
‘Sort of,’ he replies and I feel a sudden chill of apprehension.
Three hours later the Lions management pulls him out of the Māori match.
June 11, Hamilton.
Like the Lions, New Zealand Māori do not have a home and Hamilton, a couple of hours’ drive from Auckland, is the venue for the ‘Fourth Test’. The news that Māori coach Matt Te Pou is in his last game after 11 years and All Black stand-off Carlos Spencer is heading to Northampton are not good portents. I can almost hear the Māori captain addressing his team-mates: ‘We’re going to beat the shit out of the Pakeha (white men) and win this for Matt/Carlos’.
But I knew for certain it wasn’t going to be a Lions’ night as the Māori finished their version of the Haka and the cameras panned across to catch prop Gethin Jenkins leering back with what’s best described as a stupid, supercilious smirk.
Images: David Gibson – http://fotosportuk.photoshelter.com/gallery-list
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