17 Jun 2017

Lions Tour: Māori All Blacks revisit their finest hour

5:39 pm on 17 June 2017

Lions Tour Diary - During the punishing trek from Dunedin to Rotorua, Jamie Wall lets Norm Hewitt remind him of why tonight's Lions clash is so important for the Māori All Blacks.

A Lions fan before one of the team's 2017 tour matches.

A Lions fan before one of the team's 2017 tour matches. Photo: PhotoSport

Punishing. That best describes the journey between the last and next fixtures in the British & Irish Lions tour schedule for our campervan.

Dunedin to Rotorua isn't quite the length of the country, but after how freezing it was in the south we felt like we'd moved a whole hemisphere. Dunedin's stadium might be indoors, but they decided to leave the ends open to let in a breeze straight from Antarctica.

Norm Hewitt on the culture of rugby

Norm Hewitt Photo: Supplied

The long trek up the Mainland gave me a lot of downtime in the back of the camper, so I decided to read a spare book that I'd found in one of the cupboards. Gladiator, Norm Hewitt's autobiography, caused a ton of controversy when it came out in 2002 - mainly because of what some perceived to be sour grapes by the former All Black reserve hooker.

I thought I'd give it a go and see how well it'd held up. As well as being 21 chapters of blaming former All Black coach John Hart for a lot of things, Hewitt touched on a pretty interesting angle regarding the next game we were headed to on the Lions tour.

For those of you who don't know, Hewitt spent basically his entire test career in the shadow of Sean Fitzpatrick. He also drank an awful lot, disgraced himself in public and had a tale of redemption that included captaining the Māori All Blacks.

A Lions fan during one of the team's 2017 tour matches.

A Lions fan during one of the team's 2017 tour matches. Photo: PhotoSport

That's who the Lions are playing here in Rotorua tonight, and the town is pretty amped for it. But had it not been for a couple of key moments back when Hewitt was playing for the Māori, that team might not even exist anymore.

That may seem strange, given how stacked the side is and the precedence given to it these days. Hewitt revealed how in his day, they had to mutiny in order to get a decent daily wage during a tour to Fiji. Then how the Australian union granting them a match against the Wallabies pretty much saved the whole concept of the team in 2001.

Fast-forward to 2005 and the Māori All Blacks had arguably their finest hour against the British & Irish Lions. In front of a packed Waikato Stadium, the Maori downed the tourists in an intense slugfest of a match that was easily the highlight of the tour. That battle ensured the immortilisation of the Māori as New Zealand Rugby's second team.

By the time I'd finished the book we'd made it to Tāupo, and our anticipation for the match was heightening. We'd joined a snaking line of campervans heading to Sulphur City, with the vast majority adorned with Union Jacks and scarlet Lions flags.

Once we arrived, I chatted to some of our new English campground neighbours about what they thought their chances were. Optimistically, they claimed that the Māori would be suffering from a bit of ring rust and if the Lions could dominate them up front early then it could turn into the arm wrestle they wanted. I mentioned that's exactly the sort of game that happened in 2005, when the Māori All Blacks won 19-13. They mumbled something about 'this time it's different'.

I invited them to watch the All Blacks game with me on my laptop as I ran the RNZ blog later that evening. They said thanks, but we're going to the pub. We all agreed that the All Blacks would probably have a slow start to the season, because that wasn't a bad Manu Samoa side.

Turns out we were all wrong. Before the game had even finished, I watched from the campground lounge as the blokes I'd met a few hours previously came back from watching a test in which the All Blacks had laid on 10 tries.

They looked concerned.

Through the dim overhead light I could see one of them mouth the words 'we're going to get thrashed…'

A Lions fan after one of the team's 2017 tour matches.

A Lions fan after one of the team's 2017 tour matches. Photo: PhotoSport

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