Andy, First XV Rugbystuff.com's man in New Zealand, is lucky enough to be in the land of the long white cloud, taking in 4 games of the 2017 British and Irish Lions tour. In the following blog, he takes us through his travels around the North Island for the first two games of his visit - the Maori All Blacks in Rotorua, and the Chiefs in Hamilton...
After a long trip from Edinburgh, via London, Hong Kong, a few days in Melbourne, I landed in Auckland on Saturday 17th June, the day of the match against the Maori All Blacks in Rotorua. After being a stereotypical Lions tourist and picking up a campervan from Jucy at the airport, it was time to set off on the 215km drive to the Bay of Plenty region.
Arriving early afternoon, it was time to check into the campsite and head into town. In a cold, misty and wet Rotorua - famous for it's "rotten eggs" smell due to the hydrogen sulphide emissions from the thermal activity in the area - I got my first glimpse at the Lions fans. The party was well under way in Hennessy's Irish Bar, where, as well as showing 18 games of rugby, fans managed to get through nearly 8000 pints, 4000 bottles of beer, 198 bottles of wine, 62 1 litre bottles of spirits!
The weather for the match was miserable - blowing a gale and pouring with rain, but it certainly wouldn't be the last of the rain and cold weather! It is the middle of the Kiwi winter after all...
Despite that, the atmosphere was tremendous. Before the main event, New Zealand's women's team the Black Ferns hosted their English counterparts, a game which resulted in a 29-21 victory for the visitors.
The majority of the fans at the Rotorua International Stadium were in the General Admission sections, which meant standing on the steep (as well as wet and muddy!) terracing along one side of the pitch, and at each end. This helped bring fans from both sides together as spectators huddled together trying to keep as dry and warm as possible!
After some impressive fireworks, the Maori All Blacks displayed what has been described as one of the best Haka performances ever.
Finally, it was time for kick off! Captained by Peter O'Mahony, the Lions were slow out of the blocks, but it all came together in the second half as they powered to a 32-10 victory. The city had put on free shuttle buses to and from the game, but these were somewhat overwhelmed with the thousands of fans all trying to get back into town after the match.
That evening in Rotorua, it was party time! The city has many bars and restaurants, so I elected to whet my whistle in the Pig and Whistle, right in the middle of town. And who did I meet at the bar? Former Wales and Lions star Shane Williams! Maybe he's hoping Warren Gatland will find out he's nearby and picks up the phone...
Lions fans were in full voice, blasting out everything from Jerusalem to The Fields of Athenry and Bread of Heaven. A brilliant night and the Lions fans were doing the team proud!
Rotorua is famous for it's geothermal activity, so the day after the game it was time to explore the area. First stop was the Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Wonderland. This place covers over 18 square kilometres and is home to geysers, hot springs and bubbling mud pools. A truly remarkable sight and well worth a visit.
From here, a short drive took us to Waikite Valley Thermal Pools, where pure natural calcite-laden thermal water is sourced from the spectacular Te Manaroa Spring, where water emerges from the ground at 98°C.
Each of the ten pools, ranging in temperature from 35-40°C, is drained and refilled daily with fresh water, so it made for a nice relaxing afternoon following the night before!
As the Chiefs game was on the Tuesday, it meant it was soon time for another drive, this time just the 100 or so kilometres over to Hamilton. The city had created a temporary campervan park at Claudelands, a 15 minute walk from FMG Stadium, so this was where I was headed. Arriving at the park, I was greeted with the sight of somewhere in the region of 25-30 other campers, all packed decked out with flags and banners from England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales. The fans had decided this was the place to be! By that evening, there were over 110 vans on the site and the party was once more underway.
Hamilton was the first time the sky had been blue since arriving in New Zealand, the big yellow spherical object in the sky convincing everyone it was time to finally leave their waterproofs behind! Come game time, Fan Trails had been marked out from the city centre to the FMG Stadium, which had been created by primary school children from around Waikato. At the conclusion of each trail, there was a range of cultural performances showcasing the region. New Zealanders are fiercely proud of their heritage and it was great to see the passion in the kids.
FMG Stadium was the site of more Maori performances, and I even managed to get roped into learning a haka! Not quite what I expected when turning up to watch a game of rugby, but it was great fun getting involved.
Upon entering the stadium, it was time to find a spot on the terracing again. This time, it was much better laid out, with metal barriers to lean against throughout the general admission area. We picked a spot in the corner, down beside where Sky Sports were presenting their coverage with Alex Payne, Sean Fitzpatrick, Will Greenwood and Stephen Ferris all in attendance. The pundits interacted with the crowd when they weren't on air, adding to the fun in the stands.
Chiefs supporters are a passionate bunch, and gave a massive reception to Stephen Donald especially, who had played his 100th game for the side against the Reds a couple of weeks previously. Every time Beaver got his hands on the ball, there was a rise in the noise level around the ground, in expectation of something great happening! In reality though, the Lions controlled the game, and there was never a chance of last year's huge victory over Wales being repeated by the Hamilton side. It was a game the huge Lions support in the 29,974 crowd enjoyed. That "Li-ons, Li-ons" chant is getting louder as each game goes by.
Post-match, it was back to the pubs, where Lions and Chiefs fans drank, sang and danced together until the small hours! The spirit of rugby is seen around the world, but on a Lions tour it really seems to reach the next level.
Once the sore head receded the following morning, it gave us a chance to go and explore some of New Zealand, since the next game wasn't until the 1st Test on the Saturday.
A highlight in the Waikato region is the Hobbiton Movie Set, which was used in The Lord of the Rings trilogy and The Hobbit films. Whilst not a massive fan of the books or films, it's not everyday you get the chance to visit a film set! And I'm certainly glad I did - it's a truly incredible place! With 44 Hobbit Holes on display over 14 acres, the 2 hour guided tour of the Shire is fascinating. And it's topped off with a nice beer in the Green Dragon pub at the end!
The one thing that has stood out from this tour so far is the sheer number of Lions fans in the country. Everywhere you go, no matter how far off the route of the tour you are, there's always a red shirt coming the other way, more than happy to have a chat about their visit and what they thought of the most recent game. And the New Zealand fans aren't shy in voicing their opinions about the Lions chances either!
That's all for part 1, but come Saturday it's off to Auckland for the 1st Test against the All Blacks at Eden Park! There's still a lot of rugby to be played...
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