Lions Tour Diary - Sodden Whangarei

1:16 pm on 3 June 2017

Opinion - It's been 12 years since the last Lions tour and anticipation is high.

Stadiums, bars and people are expecting a party atmosphere - sadly someone did not tell Mother Nature here in Northland.

It's been a constant deluge over the last few days, with gumboots set to be the most fashionable item at tonight's tour opener at Toll Stadium. It's annoying rather than sad, given that enthusiasm around the town seems to be pretty high.

I got to Whangarei yesterday, on the sort of day that would make some of the British & Irish Lions squad members feel right at home. The Londoners probably even more so because the traffic was pretty rammed when we headed to have a look at the stadium.

It's a beautiful looking ground, but it's hard to see the grass embankment that takes up half the capacity being full tonight.

The constant rain meant that the streets were pretty empty last night, although throwing the door open in a local pub revealed a hearty bunch of tourists in red jerseys sitting by the fire and talking nonsense about how their teams was going to win the test series.

They were all in good spirits, and the weather was "just a minor thing and should get better as we go south".

I decided not to deflate their spirits by telling them about my experiences of living through 30 Wellington winters.

Whangārei puts out the welcome mat for the Lions: display in Rathbone Gifts window.

Whangārei puts out the welcome mat for the Lions: display in Rathbone Gifts window. Photo: RNZ / Lois Williams

Earlier in the day I did a bit of Lion hunting at Whangarei Boys High School. Three of the squad members scheduled to arrive and give a talk, but were running late due to a traffic jam that seemingly migrated north from Auckland.

The audience was mostly the rugby-playing boys of the school, who performed a haka and listened intently to James Haskell, Jack Nowell and Sean O'Brien talk about life as a professional player. O'Brien didn't mention how he managed to make his biceps the size of an average man's thighs though.

The gathering, while small, showed that the Lions are keen to get out and win the hearts and minds of the communities they visit. Still, it was a bit more low key compared with the old days where things like this New Plymouth effort in 1959 were standard:

That's pretty much the whole town out in force just for the parade, so you imagine what the game would've been like. This was, of course, in the days when a rugby match was legitimately the biggest thing that would happen to a New Zealand town that decade, let alone year.

Not only being the first game of the tour, this match is most definitely the least challenging for the tourists on their incredibly tough tour.

Tonight won't see the Lions take on North Auckland (they changed their name to Northland the next year) like they did in a memorable game back in 1993, but rather the NZ Provincial Barbarians - a sort of evolution of the old NZ Divisional XV.

It means that there'll be plenty of quick checks of the programme if any of the home team does something good, however there's more than a few young players that you'll be hearing about in the future.

So it's going to be a bit of a damp start to the 2017 British & Irish Lions tour to New Zealand, but at least the field won't cut up like the old days.

This game was supposed to give the Lions a bit of a training run, but now that it looks like they'll all need wetsuits maybe the Baa Baa's will be thinking otherwise.

* Jamie Wall grew up in Wellington and enjoyed a stunningly mediocre rugby career in which the single highlight was a seat on the bench for his club's premier side. He's enjoyed far more success spouting his viewpoints on the game, and other topics, to anyone who'll care to listen.

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