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.
SCOTLAND OF THE SOUTH
June 17, Christchurch.
THE New Zealand press, desperate to find a new way of rubbishing the Lions and all connected with them, turn their attentions to Welsh chanteuse Charlotte Church, who has turned up in Christchurch.
Charlotte, despite having a boyfriend (Gavin Henson) who revels in his fancy boots, sticky-up hair and shaved legs, has always struck me as fairly erudite for a 19-year-old. When George Bush Jnr, that virtuoso of worldwide song and dance, described her as ‘a weirdo’ I even came close to buying some of her records.
As it takes 24 hours to fly from the UK to New Zealand and the same back, Charlotte looks tired and bedraggled so of course she’s immediately collared by the media. She also offended their sensibilities big time when she is alleged to have told them all to ‘piss off’.
I say ‘alleged’ because the Press here is akin to the National Enquirer at its worst and jump on Charlotte like blind pit bulls that haven’t been fed for a week. One paper rather sums up its passion for good writing thus: ‘Fallen Welsh angel Charlotte Church flew out, a rude, potty-mouths, unkempt miss off home after three days with her British and Irish Lions boyfriend Gavin Henson.’ [sic]
Our own Sun, of course isn’t much better (though it does have the dispensation of writing and subbing skills). Its reporter tells us that Charlotte and Gavin indulged in ‘a 24-hour love in’. Yeah, right. Presumably with the Lions fitness trainer on stand-by with a stop watch lest he overdoes it?
A SPORTS panel on the rugby channel features AB legends Stu Wilson (wing), Josh Kronfeld (No.7) and two of the Wellington players. One of them, Ben Herring (flanker and turnover specialist) is completely unmarked after what assistant coach Andy Robinson had described as a ‘battering’ by the Lions. Also on the show is the former Scotland captain John Leslie. Now if you were picking the last man to appear on a sports talk show it would be JL. He stands there looking embarrassed for most of the 30 minutes, but he wasn’t really needed with Kronfeld present. Josh had over-indulged on the sponsor’s supply of Steinlager and, unlike Wilson, doesn’t feel minded to hide that fact.
Kronfeld even gets a smile out of JL – which is more than any of us managed during his two years in a Scotland jersey – when he announces that former Leicester team-mate Neil Back is ‘one of the most boring men in the world’. Well done, Josh. Not quite a George Best on Parkinson, but near enough.
THE Lions will train at Christ’s College, the nation’s premier rugby school and one that has supplied ‘more All Blacks than any other establishment down the years’. Does that still apply, I wonder? Like every other rugby-playing nation post professionalism, there are opportunities for the working-class here, as Kevin Tamati had implied. Hence the inclusion of more Maori and what the Kiwis like to call Islanders (aka players pinched from Fiji, Tonga and Samoa) in All Black jerseys. If we believe this, Daniel Carter used to pick yams, Richie McCaw planted fence posts, and Justin Marshall worked in an abattoir where he famously used to tackle the carcases during his tea break. On the other hand, does being working class make you better and harder and more likely to be picked for a country? I think of former Scotland public school boys David Leslie, the Calders and David Sole, and decide not.
IN Christchurch I hit the first personal crises of the tour. Black spots have been appearing in both eyes and a doctor decides I’ve had a mini-stroke which slows me down a tad. I am also running short of cash and, being a freelance these days, I’m unable to phone the office and ask for a sub. Naturally, instead of cutting back on food and drink etc., I head straight for the local casino, knowing that there will be Lions fans there: that many will be drunk and that some might fancy themselves as the poker equivalents of Minnesota Fats.
Sure enough there are three middle-aged Welshmen in Lions gear. They are well pissed and any second thoughts I had about screwing three strangers in a foreign land goes out the door when they start discussing their hands in Welsh. It takes until 5am next morning to wear down the last one. The other two had been ejected by the management having fallen asleep. I stagger back to the pay counter, pockets loaded with 1200 NZ dollars in chips most of which fell out and onto the floor.
‘You did better than the Lions guy,’ says the Pit Boss, almost (but not quite) smiling.
‘Which Lions guy?’
‘O’Driscoll was in here early on, playing blackjack. He lost the lot.’
It was my lucky day, alright.
A FIVE-HOUR drive south from Christchurch to Dunedin and a few more things I’d learned about driving in New Zealand. Asking directions to anyone is a waste of time for a start because no-one here has a clue where anything is. They always say: ‘You can’t go wrong’, but you always do. Car indicators among Kiwi drivers are open for debate rather than declarations of intent and anyone turning left has to give way to anyone turning right. It’s also open season on anyone in a hire car, in this case anyone wearing a Lions jersey.
I get stopped by a cop (travelling in the opposite direction) just outside Timaru. He breathalyses me (at mid-day) and chats for half an hour about rugby while he fills in the card.
‘Who do you think will be in 7 for the Lions?’ he asks.
I assume I will get off, but then he walks to his car and comes back with a ticket saying that I have been fined $120, ‘payable at any Westpac branch’. He then hands me a plastic, lamented card which says: ‘Welcome to New Zealand’.
With so little crime around, I assume the police have nothing better to do, though the waitress in the cafe where I stop enlightens me: the cops are stopping everyone in hire cars or campervans, knowing that most will be Lions fans and being Lions fans will have been drinking. These funds, she says, help NZ government resources.
I am still getting over that when she comes back with the coffee and tells me that half of the New Zealand police force, including those based at Timaru, presumably, will be in Christchurch for the first Test.
‘I don’t get that,’ I tell her. ‘It’s not exactly the South Africa’s Barbed Wire tour of ’81, is it?’
‘No, it’s not, but most of them are rugby fans and what better way to watch a match for free?’
Dunedin, 19 June.
ON arrival, I walk straight into another Lions versus the Population of New Zealand rumpus.
This time the local press are up in arms (as they usually are) after the Lions ‘snubbed the community’. Woodward, or whoever, had decided they had better things to do than visit Dunedin’s Little Sisters of the Poor Rest Home, where the coach of the 1959 Otago team that beat the Lions, is the star resident. Arnold Manion, now 91, duly poses for a picture looking pissed off with his snub.
Otago’s current coach, Wayne Graham, then opines that: ‘This is not the way we do things here. Touring is about mingling with the people.’
Correct, though I do remember head coach John Mitchell and the All Blacks of the 2003 World Cup, who were just about the most non-mingling with locals you could meet anywhere outside the Polunsky Unit. When the Wallabies beat the ABs 22-10 in the quarter-final: even the ranks of Tuscany could scarce forbear to cheer.
We get a chat with Craig Dunlea, formerly of Hawick and the Borders and still a big happy chappy. He has been named in the Otago front-row in the absence of Carl Hayman (another of several thousand All Black legends). Dunlea, quite rightly, is not taking this too seriously, swigging at a beer with us, the preliminary to a few more, he promises. In stark contrast the Lions captain of the day, Gordon Bulloch, looks like a man who has just been told Word War Three has started as he waits to go into the press conference.
I say hello and good luck and he responds by cutting me dead. I don’t blame him for this because I know exactly why. He is a Lion at the moment and having to talk to a member of the Scottish press again is a reminder of the shite he was involved in as captain of Scotland. He is above that now. Bulloch is one of the nouveau riche of rugby with a Porsche, properties in Glasgow and a bonny new bride. He got married in a castle … but he’s still a miserable sod. I used to ghost his column in a Scottish newspaper (£200 for three minutes’ work) and the difference between him (pro) and another rugby player whose column I used to ghost, Finlay Calder (amateur – and a former Lions captain), could not have been more marked. Finlay used to split everything 50/50 and always insisted on checking every sentence and every word. I could have been writing in Mandarin for all Bulloch knew or cared. At least he will be able to tell his grandchildren he captained the Lions, though even he must know it is because we are in Dunedin, the Scotland of New Zealand … and it sounded like a good idea to someone at the time.
ALL BLACKS coach Graham Henry is on TV, the children’s Small Blacks programme, pretending he has invented a system in which he can send orders to his on-field team via a PlayStation and win every match he is ever involved in. It is meant as a spoof, but there’s plausibility in it.
Lance Armstrong, the Tour de France winner, has an earpiece connected to his management team which tells him when to attack and when to defend and which rival is suddenly dangerous. All of which isn’t a million miles away from a coach in a game of rugby. Perhaps Henry (or more likely Woodward) could market it and make a fortune?
AS FOR the match itself (30-19 to the tourists) it turned out that worst prepared Lion – Welsh back-row Ryan Jones, who has just arrived as a replacement for Simon Taylor – was the best performer and by a long chalk. Denis Hickie and Charlie Hodgson both missed tackles during Otago’s try and are certainly out of the running for the Tests. Matt Dawson comes off the bench, tries to break with his first touch, throws up his arms in disgust to fool the referee and duly wins the penalty. The Lions do a lap of honour for the travelling support.
Woodward comes into the press conference looking relaxed and in his best smart-ass mode.
‘It smells in here’ he tells us. ‘Haven’t you heard of Sure?’ SURE are one of the tour sponsors.
A Kiwi hack asks if he had been tempted to throw Jonny on.
‘Difficult that,’ says Clive, ‘as he was sat up in the stands with a suit on.’
Another asks ‘if it’s true you’re taking over as manager at Southampton?’
New one on me, says Clive.
Finally, the 22 picked for the next match, Southland, will play no part in the Test; an odd situation when players actually pray that they are not selected.
FOR THE first time I sense some seeds of doubt among the Kiwi pressmen. They stop laughing at the Lions. Clive leads everyone, us included, back to Carisbrook in a heart-warming display of what touring is all about next day. Hundreds of kids and parents queue up for autographs and the Lions oblige. There’s an element of humour in the squad for the first time. A young fan asks Ireland second-row Donncha O’Callaghan why Gavin Henson is an orange colour. Another tells Woodward he is about to go to university in Britain.
Woodward has a good laugh at that, as we all do.
June 20, Christchurch.
Back to normal, or what we call normal now, as soon as Alastair Campbell returns from his pressing work back in the UK.
The team for the Southland match includes Henson, effectively ruling him out of test selection. The Welsh Press, typically, sees it as pro-English favouritism on the part of Woodward. As does Henson, it seems, who gives an unguarded interview to a persistent Dean Wilson, the cricket correspondent of Hayters, just after the Welshman had finished training.
More outrage: this time from all the journalists who’d missed the story and would now have to explain how and why to their editors back home.
The main complaint was that the Lions management had insisted that Henson would not be doing interviews – and hours later was in full flow.
Campbell immediately collars Wilson and persuades him his quotes would have to be pooled.
Incredibly, instead of telling Campbell to fuck off, Wilson agrees – and loses his exclusive.
PR person Louise Cheetham put it this way: ‘We feel duty bound to pass on his comments to all journalists covering the tour. Dean is happy for us to do this.’
When it does come out, the exclusive turns out to be pretty puerile after all. Henson admits that he was ‘absolutely devastated and he had sleepless nights‘. Then, in what reads suspiciously like Campbell speak: ‘I’m determined to show what I am made of.’
We are in the same hotel as the Lions, The Southern Cross, and it is like a Florida spring break outside with drunken Lions fans and locals competing to make the night more hideous.
Images: David Gibson – www.fotosportuk.photoshelter.com