After the game against the Chiefs in Hamilton, there were a few free days before the first Test, so it was time to go and explore some of the North Island, and have a bit of a break from the Lions for a while. Or at least that was the plan. First stop, Hot Water Beach on the Coromandel Peninsula. The only people there? Lions fans! Clearly many were having the same idea and getting a couple of days of R&R before heading to Auckland. Within two hours either side of low tide at Hot Water Beach it is possible to rent a spade from a nearby cafe or art gallery, dig a hole in the sand, allowing water as hot as 64°C to escape to the surface, and sit in the hot water pool. On a day like that, it was lovely!
This next picture tells a thousand words about the weather!
The Coromandel is a gorgeous part of New Zealand, with the drives through the mountains very similar to something you might find in the Highlands of Scotland. However, with the wind and rain the way they were, the best place to be was the pub! Once we arrived in Coromandel Town, that's exactly where we headed. An evening by a warm fire, chatting to fellow Lions tourists and enjoying pizza and beers. A fantastic way to recharge the batteries before heading back down to Auckland.
On the way back down the Pacific Coast Highway, we stopped to check out Cathedral Cove. The half hour walk from the car park is well worth it. Te Whanganui-A-Hei, to give it it's Maori name, takes you down to a small beach whose main highlight is the cathedral-like arch through the limestone cliff. And what did we find down here? Some Lions fans chucking a rugby ball around! A great spot for an impromptu game of beach rugby.
Tourist trip over, back to the rugby! We arrived in Auckland, staying in a lovely wee Airbnb in the city, just a short walk from the Sky Tower in Auckland. Shrouded in mist, it's an impressive sight, even from close up.
Once settled, it was time to hit the bar! It's becoming a common theme on this trip, as it does on the vast majority of rugby tours... On the way, we even bumped into our Adidas rep, who was enjoying the All Blacks side of the tour. I look forward to comparing stories next time he visits Edinburgh.
The Doolan Brothers, an Irish bar in Auckland's Newmarket area, was the site of pre-match hospitality ahead of the Test, with things kicking off early in the afternoon. The big screens showed Scotland's disappointing defeat to Fiji (the English fans in the venue seemed especially pleased with that result...) and the Australia win over Italy, and helped get everyone into the mood for the rugby that was to come that evening.
From Doolan's it was a 45 minute to the stadium, attempting to follow the Fan Trail. We were joined by a group of Irish guys and sang our way along the road to Eden Park to the tune of "Oh Maro Itoje", "Li-ons, Li-ons", "The Fields of Athenry" and any number of other fan songs! After not getting lost, honestly, there it was, Eden Park. Walking through a residential area, the first you see of New Zealand's largest stadium is one colourful stand, lit up in what appeared to be Lions red.
Entering Eden Park with about 45 minutes until kick off, and following a 10 minute queue for a rather pricey beverage, we found our seats. And already the sea of red was visible! The bottom tier of the West Stand appeared to be exclusively red, whilst large pockets were noticeable in the East and North Stands. Our seats were in the lower tier of the South Stand, with plenty of fans from both sides in the vicinity. It was to make for an interesting evening, especially with the young gentleman behind me who took a fancy to my Lions Bobble Beanie Hat, giving it a good rub whenever the action got exciting on the field!
That special edition adidas All Blacks Territory jersey looked awesome under the Auckland lights, and I felt honoured to see the Kiwi side perform the legendary haha whilst wearing it.
Whilst the outcome of the first Test wasn't the result Lions fans were looking for, there was definitely cause for hope there, and fingers crossed next Saturday in Wellington has a happier ending.
The morning after, I decided to explore Auckland's Fanzone, which had been set up on Queen's Wharf. The hub for Lions fixtures in the area, the area featured a huge bar area which had screened the match before for fans who weren't fortunate enough to have tickets, the DHL Dome which featured New Zealand’s staggering array of rugby trophies together in one place, including the Bledisloe Cup (enormous when you see it in the flesh!), 2005 and 2017 Lions Series trophies, Laureus World Sports Award for Team of the Year, Invested Rugby Championship trophy, and the Melrose Cup from the 2013 Rugby World Cup Sevens in Russia. It was amazing to see all these trophies in one place!
On the Monday morning, it was time to board another Jetstar flight and head to New Zealand's capital, and home of the Hurricanes, Wellington. A fairly small city, the centre is situated on the peninsula between Cook Strait andWellington Harbour, which makes or an impressive final approach to the airport. Once we had checked into the Novotel on The Terrace, a short walk took us to the front, where there was a Fanzone in the process of being setup. Despite having 2 games of the Lions tour, it seemed Wellington was more targeting the Test, with bars still putting up marquees and getting beer deliveries on the afternoon of the Hurricanes match. Regardless, the city was flooded with Lions supporters enjoying the warm weather.
One of Wellington's main attractions is the cable car. a funicular railway which rises 120m from Lambton Quay to Kelburn and the Botanic Gardens. Once at the summit, the view looks out over the city, towards Mount Victoria and beyond. A walk around the gardens made for an enjoyable morning in preparation for the Westpac Stadium that evening.
Sightseeing done, it was game time! The Westpac Stadium, more commonly known as the Cake Tin, is a short walk from the city, and when the floodlights are on, it's impossible to miss!
We arrived in the stadium just as the match ball was being delivered by helicopter, not something you see at many games of rugby. As the name suggests, The Cake Tin is a circular stadium, with all seating on one tier. Whilst this design is usually more suited to cricket, the view from our seats was perfect. Almost directly behind the posts the Lions were defending in the first half, and just high enough up to get a good idea of where the play was going on on the field.
The Hurricanes fans were the probably the noisiest opposition the Lions have faced so far on tour, with thousands of flags around the ground. The Tutira Mai call that has been played out during breaks in play has been drowned out by the British and Irish fans, but this time the Tatou Tatou response could actually be heard! Although the fans in red did their best to drown it out once more after their team got in front. Somehow the Lions managed to throw away what looked like a comfortable win, with the Hurricanes fighting back for a 31-31 draw. Not what I hoped for in my final game on tour, but the atmosphere inside the ground and Wellington spectators just about made up for it. And to top it off, I even grabbed selfies (slightly blurry, blame the beer) with Dan Biggar and Nehe Milner-Skudder post-game. The All Black was a true gentleman and even had time for a quick chat, following which I offered him my Canterbury Lions beanie hat which he gratefully accepted!
That was to be the final action of my tour of New Zealand with the British and Irish Lions, as I had to catch a Qantas flight back to Melbourne the next day, with just enough time for a quick dinner with some old friends, before another 28 hours of travelling back through Hong Kong and London, getting back to Edinburgh the morning before the second Test.
It was my first experience of a British and Irish Lions tour, but it definitely won't be the last.I had a tremendous time following the side around New Zealand, and was blown away by not only the country and it's people, but the enthusiasm and passion of my fellowing travelling supporters everywhere I went. Roll on South Africa 2021!