4 Jul 2017

Joining the pride: The Lions tour in seven days

2:40 pm on 4 July 2017

I see red.


A Lions fan roars his team on.

A Lions fan roars his team on. Photo: Photosport

The capital returned to its typical quiet self, yesterday.

Scores of British and Irish Lions fans are departing Wellington, leaving behind drained kegs and vomit-stained streets. Their monotonous chants head to Auckland’s waterfront, now with a little more spirit in the larynx.

The mood is a far cry from a week ago when Warren Gatland’s men were outclassed at Eden Park, or two weeks ago when they were stunned in Dunedin, or three weeks ago when they were beaten by New Zealand’s worst Super Rugby team.

After the side’s upset of the All Blacks on Saturday, Oliver Holt wrote in Britain’s Daily Mail the result had “saved the British and Irish Lions”.

“If you think that's an exaggeration, you are underestimating how many people were queuing up to ridicule the very concept of the Lions if they lost this Test and, with it, the series against New Zealand.”

Honestly, Oliver Holt, I was in that long queue, buried close to the back.

But over the course of seven days, something miraculous happened. Here’s how I became a Lions Tour convert:


Enthusiasm level: 2.5

The weather forecast for the week is grim. Mondays are grim. Walking to work on the waterfront I pass two grizzled men in red jackets. “I think I saw Rob Howley and Graham Rountree,” I later say*.

That evening, trudging up Majoribanks Street, I notice two hulk-sized men and a third, comparably squatty accomplice. It’s only as we pass that I realise it’s Brodie Retallick, Owen Franks and Aaron Cruden. The latter is wearing a bright fluro vest - a solid choice in the wet gloom.

When I return home, my phone shows half-a-dozen missed calls. “Mate, I’ve scored some tickets to tomorrow’s Hurricanes-Lions game. Are you in?” Yes, I am in. Monday ends on a high.

*By the end of the week I have walked past so many older men in red jackets, I seriously question my sighting of the two Lions coaches.

Lions fans are usually fairly recognisable.

Lions fans are usually fairly recognisable. Photo: Photosport


Enthusiasm level: 5

Some Welsh friends invite us for a warm-up at a waterfront bar. Their parents and their parents’ mates are on tour and keen to talk shop. “We don’t watch much Super Rugby, but it’s the best rugby in the world.”

They buy rounds - naturally Mac’s Sassy Red - and bemoan the lack of Brains*. The chants soon start up. “Lions, Lions, Lions.” Over and over, like a drill. They’re funny buggers. They’re wearing their red kit under their red jackets and their balding heads are warmed by their red beanies. “We’re taking them clubbing after the game,” my Welsh friend whispers.

The walk to Wellington Stadium is buzzing. “Waltzing O'Driscoll”, “Ohhh Maro Itoje” and “Can you hear the All Blacks sing? I can't hear a f***ing thing” drown out the kilt-sporting buskers and their bagpipes.

Our seats, to our shock, are on halfway. We sit next to a group of Lions fans, one of countless clumps filling the stadium. We’re mocked when the Lions’ second stringers go in front. We later scoff back, “That was worse than the O’Driscoll spear”, when Jordy Barrett is upended. The game finishes 31-31. A truce, for now.

During the crowded slog back we pass a few deserted bars. An acoustic guitarist plays to empty glasses and empty seats. A handful of people in the fan zone are watching a retro ‘60s cabaret act. A drunk fan bravely lurches forward to dance but tumbles to the ground. “It’s freezing. Let’s go home.”

*Brains is a Welsh beer. Apparently, the “best Welsh beer”.

A television host holds up an image Lions coach Warren Gatland depicted as a clown before the Hurricanes game.

A television host holds up an image Lions coach Warren Gatland depicted as a clown before the Hurricanes game. Photo: AFP


Enthusiasm level: 5.1

An uneventful day. Word reaches the office there’s a big sale at Rebel Sport. I head there after work and notice a Lions fan dejectedly thumbing the $99 reduced price tag on a red jersey. “I paid $160 for this a week ago.”


Enthusiasm level: 1

Cuba Street is getting redder by the day; but I’m in Auckland for work. I take a wrong turn heading to dinner and end up on the motorway. There’s a lot of traffic.

Meanwhile, back in Wellington, my regular Thursday night burger spot is invaded by All Blacks. My mates, who happily give up our regular table, mingle with Sam Cane, Dane Coles and Anton Lienert-Brown. They take a pic with a beaming Sonny Bill. He looks confident.


Enthusiasm level: 7

Friday night. What to do? Back to the waterfront, where there’s a nervous night-before-Christmas vibe. The live music has found an audience. We sit in the Garage Project tent with an Irish Lions fan. We’re both certain the home side will win tomorrow, the only debate is by how much. Another table is listening. "Aye, but Jonny Sexton may have something up his sleeve."

There’s more singing back on Cuba Street. A visibly wrecked Lions fan clutches a lamppost as his mate tries to pull him off by the legs. “It’s the green woman, we’ve got to cross the road,” he pleads.

More than 25,000 visitors were estimated in the capital.

More than 25,000 visitors were estimated in the capital. Photo: Photosport


Enthusiasm level: 9.5

There’s a queue outside the pub at 4.30pm. 4.30pm! Inside, it’s a wash of red. My mate and I try to start a conversation with a dead-eyed curmudgeon. “You going to the game?” He nods. “Where you from?” He points to the Welsh quarter of the badge on his Lions jersey. “Having a good time?” He nods. Are you going to murder us?

His English mates do talk, though, and we yarn about sport, beer and Wellington. “You really do have the best city in the world.” We shrug and nod.

Then there’s a game.

We mope outside for a moment as the hordes spill out. More singing and swaying and “LIONS, LIONS, LIONS”. Our Irish mate persuades us to drown our sorrows. Later, a well-travelled Welsh rugby scribe would write Lions fans at Wellington Stadium produced the best atmosphere he’d even seen. They bring it back to town.

At the supermarket in Thorndon hundreds of people pour into the car park to listen to the Four Nations Lions’ Male Choir give an impromptu performance of old folk songs. Fifty men and women in red make spines tingle.

Back in the city, my mate and I begrudgingly agree the Lions’ win makes game three almost as special as a World Cup final. We meet up with a few more friends and head to a karaoke bar. It’s time for us to sing.


Enthusiasm level: 10

Things eventually get desperate as we end up in the cowboy-themed Dakota Bar dancing to Taylor Swift and LeAnn Rimes. We decide to call it at 3am and leave one of our group pashing an English woman by the toilets. We question our decision on the walk home as we pass every bar and club and kebab shop as full as they’ve ever been.

From my bedroom near Cuba Street I can hear the party rage on until the winter sun rises. Wellington, as it has all week, feels more alive than ever. I have a hangover coming. I can’t get the most annoying, simplistic chant out of my head. We’ll get them in Auckland, I think, before I smile and finally fall asleep.