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.
Sultans of Spin
June 4, Rotorua.
The road to Rotorura runs through rolling woodland, past small hills, sheep farms and tourist signs pointing the way to Maori marae, where, at a price, you can try a Haka and touch noses with the indigenous people. There are ‘Go the Bay’ signs everywhere, one built from loose stones on a hillside; another painted on top of what looked like a gondola station. Finally, in a farmhouse window near Cambridge, a ‘Go Lions’ sign and a St Georges flag, forlorn but defiant – like the old lady and her union flag in Whittier’s civil war poem.
The Gallop Inn, close by Hamilton, is the halfway feeding stop. The waitress, a South African, tells us she had been overrun by Lions fans for the last two days. Like many female Saffers she is tall, blonde and bonny – but not handed the sharpest of pencils.
‘We haven’t seen so much life for ages,’ she says. ’Must be something to do with our all-day breakfasts.’ More likely something to do with the ‘Cheap Sex for Barmy Army’ sign on the newspaper billboard in the car park.
Bay of Plenty, named by the Yorkshire nomad James Cooke in the18th century, have the honour of being the Lions’ opening pushovers though, as with anything else in rugby, it’s unwise to underestimate anyone. Argentina were supposed to be Woodward cannon fodder at Twickenham two weeks ago and we all know what happened there.
A 20-year-old No 8 called Colin Bourke is on TV the night before. Like many Kiwis who have had to wait 12 years for the Lions he has bought into the legend big time. His eyes widen like a schoolboy when he tells us he was a 10-year-old ball boy at Napier’s McLean Park on the day Hawkes Bay beat Gavin Hastings’ tourists 29-17. Bourke will be directly opposed to Lawrence Dallaglio and he’s up for it.
Rotorura International Stadium is a nice oval amphitheatre above the town. You park at the top and actually walk down to the ground. The Lions run out to a fantastic Maori welcome. The women at the front wave their arms and trill in enchanting fashion and the men counterpoint them with a sort of grunting descant, all popping eyes and warlike gestures. The Bay of Plenty organisers even wheel out a semi-professional singer to have a go at the Lions new anthem, the Power of Four. She does her best, but a Pavarotti would struggle to breathe life into this dirge. The players obviously agree because not a mouth moves as the TV cameras make the traditional pan down the line. Dallaglio’s face is screwed into something close to tears.
You couldn’t hear it from where we were in the Press box, but a photographer claimed later that the player screamed in pain when he went down and that, along with the looks on Doctor James Robson’s face, suggested that this was a tour-ending injury. The man in charge of the stadium tannoy must have thought the same. ‘Time to Move On’ sang Tom Petty as Dallaglio departed aboard the mini-Popemobile.
This was a drastic reverse for the Lions – and the travelling media. To many of us Dallaglio represented the smiling face of rugby professionalism amid the po-faced blandness around him. The injury also had a decisive effect on the course of the match. The Lions started well but subsided into something close to incompetence once Dallaglio had gone.
On-field deficiencies apart, the tourists press all the right buttons elsewhere. Captain Brian O’Driscoll makes his team wait by the tunnel for 10 minutes at the end to applaud in the opposition and Woodward goes straight into his charm offensive script on television, offering congratulations to everyone, the Bay players, their fans, even the grounds man.
The Bay’s stand-out player had been Nili Latu, the openside flanker, who had earned the ultimate compliment from his opposite number when Martyn Williams belted him in the mouth at a ruck. Latu appears in front of the press later with battle scars all over him, scrape marks down his forehead and a mouth still bleeding. By contrast, the freshly-scrubbed Lions look as though they have come straight from the squash court.
‘We talked of niggling their main players and if we can get them off their game we’ve got a good chance of disrupting their ball,’ says Latu. Then, more tellingly: ‘They were complaining because we were getting in there and doing little things. They were playing to a map and I said to the boys if we can disrupt their game plan we’ve got a good chance of giving it a good go.’
Former All Black Adrian Cashmore is offered some bait by a home hack and invited to slag off the Lions. To his credit, the full-back is content with saying: ‘If they played the All Blacks now they might just struggle’. This seems like masterly understatement.
The Bay’s press conference line-up is a collection of national stereotypes. The Maori captain, Wayne Ormond, says ‘Yeah, bro’ a lot. Cashmore is the token All Black and the young-stand-off Williams will probably make it one day. The coach is a farmer, so we have to assume he will go home that night to milk the cows.
Bourke, whose confrontation with Dallaglio, was brutally truncated, reveals that he found the jersey waiting for him when he returned to the dressing rooms. ‘It was incredible really – he’d taken the time, despite the pain he must have been in, to take off his jersey and leave it on a coat hanger in the changing room for me before he was taken to hospital. When I saw him being wheeled off I thought “Bugger, there goes my only chance of swapping jerseys”, but he was good enough to think about me. I’ll treasure it for a while.’
Then, the Woodward Press Conference.
On the surface little seemed to have changed since Sir Clive’s finest hour in Australia two years ago. The same rugby correspondents, what Cronkite used to call the 800lb gorillas, sit at the front in the same order (some in the same unironed shirts), almost as if transported, Star Trek style, from Australia 2003. The nobodies (like me) hide away at the back.
A PR person is stationed close by to make sure snappers can’t get pics of Woodward from behind. Apparently he’s quite touchy about his hair loss.
He starts with exactly the same speech he has just given to TV, but there is something else subtly different. His smiles and frowns seem to be out of sync with the questions and answers, like an audio that doesn’t match the movie. He puts fingers together, raises both hands and points a lot, like a von Karajan in full conductor mode. It is only when I look round at the man with the permanent frown at the back that I realize where I’d seen all this before at every press conference from No. 10. With a bit more work on his acting and phrasing Woodward could do a mean impersonation of Blair: I Was Tony’s Double, if you like.
Towards the end of the press conference a loud twittering from the balcony above; a sure sign that the photographers have filed their first images.
‘Will the photographers please keep quiet.’ demands Jim Kayes, the rugby correspondent for the Dominion Press, in the tones of an overbearing head master. I don’t know Kayes, but I assume he is the Kiwi version of Mick Cleary, of the Daily Telegraph, the British and Irish hacks’ shop steward.
In cases like this I always sympathise with the snappers.
Unlike us, whose buffet table groans with the weight of all sorts of goodies, the snappers get one plate of sandwiches between all of them which seems a bit unfair.
They have a distinct pecking order. The regular snappers get mobile bibs, the rest static bibs. The statics are the nobodies, the mobiles the rugby versions of a David Bailey or a Robert Capa. Mobile One is Peter ‘Bushy’ Bush who is about 75 years old and saw his first All Blacks match in 1949. He probably started his career with a box brownie; now he needs help with two rucksacks, large metal lens box and what looks like an extendable walking stick. He also suffers from narcolepsy which conjures up an image of the dinner date from hell: Bushy and Steve ‘Blackie’ Black, the former fitness trainer who fell asleep midway through an interview I did with him on the 2001 Lions tour. Bushy is a big man with a mellifluous voice and like many Kiwis of his generation hates the Japanese. He also hates the Welsh. He still insists that when JPR Williams had his face re-structured by a New Zealand boot at Bridgend in 1978 it was all Williams’ fault. Bushy has a special gold bib and can go wherever he likes; even the dressing rooms. If he asked loud enough he would probably be on the pitch while play is in progress.
In the presence of such photographic aristocracy I wondered if Jim Kayes, the rugby correspondent for the Dominion Press, would ever tell Bushy to belt up. Somehow I doubt it.
Outside I run into Stephen Jones of the Sunday Times, the most-quoted rugby journalist in the history of the game. After the World Cup of 2003 he had produced a book that was less about that tournament than what a hard life it was being an all-the-year-round rugby journalist. Midway through he had suffered a detached retina, hence the title of his tome, On My Knees. I offer some insincere sympathies and recalled an announcement in a New Zealand newspaper that their guest columnist throughout the tour will be Stephen Jones of the Sunday Times, England. Jonesy (as Woodward calls him) also has a piece in the Bay of Plenty programme and a column on the Planet Rugby website. All this on top of his Sunday Times stuff. Perhaps his eye problem has something to do with his workload? His current complaint this week (he’s a serial complainer) is the slowness of New Zealand traffic lights.
On the way up the hill from the empty stadium I am struck by what appears to be hundreds of blankets lying on the grass at either end of the ground. On closer examination these turn out to be clusters of discarded beer bottles. The Kiwi fans know how to party all right, but unlike Australia in 2001 – and at the World Cup in 2003 – I had a definable feeling that the beer comes second to the rugby. In Australia, the games are an excuse for a piss-up; in New Zealand, the piss-up is peripheral to the game. For the Aussies the entertainment in front of them could be anything. That probably explains why Aussie Rules is so popular. If they sobered up long enough and looked closely enough they would discover what a daft game it is.
June 5, Auckland.
If readers of the Sunday Star Times cannot believe anything could be so bland and lacking in insight, Jonny Wilkinson’s column has a wee codicil: ‘This column was vetted by the Lions media department.’ I open my e-mails to find that the lunchtime press conference to announce the Taranaki side had now been moved to 6pm, a scenario we are becoming more and more familiar with. This could be something to do with a news story in the New Zealand Herald. One of their reporters had managed to penetrate the Lions’ fortress in the Auckland Hilton, walking straight past the hotel heavies and Bravos 1, 2 and 3 and into the tourists’ recreation area. There he had discovered all their individual laptops, including one with a handwritten note from Irish referee turned ‘special advisor’ David McHugh attached: ‘If you want to see how Paul Honiss referees and what he blows penalties for, it’s on this laptop’. Honiss being the Kiwi referee in charge of the game against Wellington in 10 days’ time.
At 6pm, we all duly file into one of the Hilton conference suites to hear Ian McGeechan announce the side for the Taranaki match. Geech is in his best smiling gnome mode, but slips up when he starts to announce ‘the Wednesday team’. This is not in the Woodward/Campbell script, definitely not the party line, as there had been an insistence that all 45 Lions should be considered an entity and not, as in previous tours, divided into Wednesday dirt-trackers and a Test team. Geech corrects himself quickly to the ‘team for Wednesday’, a subtle difference.
Geech is inordinately vague, as usual. Nice with it, but he still has his habit of rambling. I used to give him terrible stick in Scotland on Sunday when he was a pretty unsuccessful Scotland coach and still he smiles at me and says: ‘Good to see you’.
As usual, I feel a twinge of guilt, which may have been what he intends. Or maybe he never reads newspapers. The Scottish accent, I note, has gone completely. Now it’s almost pure Yorkshire. But I am glad to see him happy. He is in his element working with world-class players, rather than with Scotland where, to put it politely, there is nothing even remotely world class. Woodward et al regard him as a sort of guru here. He is like the Sam Jaffe character in Lost Horizon, the wizened High Lama with his fund of home-spun homilies, the accumulated wisdom of age and experience. I hope he’s out of the way when the shit hits the fan, as it surely will.
Images: David Gibson – http://fotosportuk.photoshelter.com/gallery-list