Lessons from the Lions’ tour

Friday June 16, 2017 Written by Published in Rugby Union

After two weeks on the road with the British and Irish Lions, four games, dozens of interviews, 17 ballpoint pens and three foolscap pads, Stuff’s Kevin Norquay takes a look at what a slow learner has learned.

 

Sam Warburton: A giant of a man physically and mentally. He hasn’t been at his peak after recovering from a knee injury, it hasn’t been an easy tour with losses against the Blues and Highlanders and yet he’s kept his side as one. Now he’s not in the top-starting 15, yet you won’t hear complaining from him. It’s all about the team. His attitude has been beyond upbeat. Asked how he’s found New Zealanders, he reeled out positive after positive, smiling and utterly sincere.

“They are so friendly, like. We have so much support. I just popped to the gym the other day - on my own, just to sneak in an extra session - people were coming over and constantly wishing us luck, you know and there’s the odd Kiwi who obviously gets stuck into you a little bit, but 99 per cent of the time they’re just wishing us good luck.

They just want to see a really good entertaining test series, which is nice.”

 It takes a big man to remain so positive, so much about the team, when his own form is off, and his personal ambitions disappearing. A leader you’d follow anywhere. As coach Warren Gatland says, “it’s hugely helpful for building the squad.” About as huge as his arm muscles. He’s the captain of the Lions, the King of Biceps.

Warren Gatland: A hard man to read. Is he making a quip, is he stone cold serious? Often it’s both at the same time. If you have seen him in a snippet on TV, chances are you’re getting the grim serious bit.

When he is relating banter and pranks among his troops, he’s like a kid on Christmas morning. He seems a player’s coach. If one of his men is even so much as damned with faint praise, he turns into a growling dog guarding his boys.

When Warrenball was mentioned, he let loose a few choice words, yet was able to joke about it at his next presser. Warrenball - a tag line for a basic style of play - is essentially an insult to his coaching knowledge. Who among us can honestly say they have never been upset by personal attacks on our professional integrity? 

Witty Lions: Confined to those interviewed. Prop Kyle Sinckler - he of the dashing midfield breaks - is thoughtful, well spoken, self-deprecating and appreciative of the help other players have given him. He came from a tough London background. Lock Maro Itoje is charming - he even shakes the hands of journalists. He likes his headphones, dances around with joy on the field at a Lions turnover, and has had the awful task of looking after BIL, the mascot Lion other players try to hide. Centre Jonathan Davies is a cunning answerer of tricky questions.

Buzzwords: Not buzzwords really, they should be called roar words. Every interview, out they come, as if the speaker has a string attached that gets pulled to activate an internal speaker. “Physicality”; “challenge”; “it is what it is”; “playing for the whole 41 (players)”; “game time”; “the focus is on the performance”; “it’s about the group, not the individual”. And “learnings” by the dozen. Full credit to them, they’ve been able to keep up the pressure the full 80 minutes so far.

Stadium Dunedin’s Forsyth Barr in a landslide win.

It’s got a roof, which is mana from heaven when it’s 3degC and threatening to snow. Not only that, it makes for outstanding viewing and listening (you could almost hear the tackles). Night games in mid-winter make sense when you’ve got a roof over them. Eden Park, less intimate, but comfy. Toll Stadium in Whangarei (should have been called Atoll Stadium, there was water all around) offered the clinging to the grassy knoll experience for those on the slopes, while AMI Stadium is testimony to the post-quake resilience of Cantabs and above criticism.

Kiwi fans: Brits spoken to have reported only good things about their interactions with Kiwi rugby fans, though some within earshot of the press benches seem to have been beamed in from the Stone Age, clutching a beer. We’ve had Mr Let’s Abuse Stephen Jones (the British journalist, who is very capable of giving it back); Mr Crusaders Don’t Lose Even When They Have Fewer Points; Mr Utterly Incomprehensible Deliverance-style Beanie Wearer (Highlanders); and Mr Smug Rich Guy, who fires abuse at a disappointed Brit, then does the “what’s his problem?” look of innocence when he gets an earful back.

Haka: Lots of these to choose from. They were all winners - you don’t judge cultural significance. But the haka has been judged; too many of them, too violent, and on and on. Get a grip, people. It’s a welcome, and a challenge.

It is an integral part of New Zealand society, we should treasure it and defend it against the erosion of a culture. And as for the throat slitting gesture being offensive on the violence scale - go and do some research on the Highlanders’ Claymore broadsword, those things weren’t always ceremonial.

Cities: Dunedin, with a handy lead over Auckland, Whangarei and Christchurch, even though it snowed or sleeted or cold rained - I’m not a weatherman, OK. In the warm, the Octagon was party central, full of Lions fans and cheerfulness. Whangarei put on a main street party, kapa haka, beer, food, lurking police officers and an epic display of torrential rain.

Let’s give Christchurch third place. Auckland? It was Lions? Here? Really?

In brief: Best coffee, Dunedin; hot tip, choose the cookie over the chips on Air New Zealand; British fans; colourful in garb and language; coaches; oddly-driven characters, all with charisma.

            -Stuff/Kevin Norquay

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