I wake up in a motel in Whangarei. Out the window it’s raining so hard we can’t even walk across the car park. This is the Lions tour, day one.
There’s four of us on the trip, and we’re in a campervan. Our job is to document the tour for Rugby Pass, but it doesn’t start smoothly. Although the rain has cleared by the time we get to the ground, we’re not allowed on the field itself like we wanted to. For my presentation to camera I’m wearing a suit contrived to look like what the All Blacks wear post-game, complete with official tie. It’s causing problems, as I also look exactly like the officials from NZ Rugby, which means that several people have come up and asked me for instructions. It won’t be the last time it gets me confused for someone I’m not, either.
At the end of that first game though, those issues don’t seem as bad as the ones facing the Lions. The best of Britain has struggled to beat a bunch of nobodies dressed up as the ‘Provincial Barbarians’. It doesn’t get any better a few days later at Eden Park, where they lose to the lowly Blues.
It gets cold very quickly as we head south in our campervan. By the time we reach Picton, I’m huddling under a duvet in the back lounge of the vehicle. The central heating system is unreliable at best, besides we can’t leave the gas on when we sleep for fear of accidentally killing ourselves.
All signs heading into Christchurch is that this tour is going to be as catastrophic as everyone predicted. And I mean everyone. By now I’ve got to know a few of the British press traveling with the tour and they seem to be even more dismissive of the Lions’ chances than the local media.
We’re all surprised when the Lions pull off a grinding, boring win against the previously unbeaten Crusaders – however my main memory of this match was how the knights who ride on horseback into AMI Stadium were casually getting changed into their costume armour just metres away from the crowd queuing up to get into the ground, utterly ruining my suspension of disbelief.
In Dunedin the Lions lose again, and so do I as I’m forced to walk back from the stadium into the city in the pouring rain. By now I’ve caught a nasty cold, which isn’t helped by a long journey back north in our fridge on wheels.
This is the harshest leg – Dunedin to Rotorua in time for the Maori All Blacks game. We roll into Sulphur City a tired bunch, having driven 1,200km in 36 hours. The British journalists I talk to before the game are spouting more doom than ever, so when the Lions pull off a comprehensive victory the mood lifts considerably. Which is good, because being around all these grumpy Poms wasn’t much fun. They cheer up even more when we get to Hamilton, the Lions destroy the Chiefs and all of a sudden there’s some real intrigue heading into the first test.
Sean O’Brien scores one of the greatest tries ever, but it’s to no avail. The Lions lose to the All Blacks, and we head south again to Wellington. Things are starting to get tense, this next week will more or less define the whole tour.
It hasn’t stopped one British journalist I’ve befriended from hitting Tinder hard in the capital. He knows I’m originally a local and asks me where to take a girl he’s matched with, who he claims to be a former Miss Wellington – I suggest the most expensive restaurant in town. Meanwhile, one of his colleagues attempts to hit on one of the girls the Wellington Rugby Union has employed to show us around Westpac Stadium, despite the obvious age difference between them.
The Lions draw with the Hurricanes, and the post match press conferences started to get interesting. Up until then, Warren Gatland had been mostly sleeptalking his way through the post match formalities – now he was having to explain in great detail why he’d refused to use his bench, essentially throwing away a win to a fast finishing Hurricane outfit. For some reason I’m in the front row of the presser, and I almost find myself ducking the low key hatred between Gatland and the media being spat back and forth.
The tension spills over onto the otherwise benign captain’s run the day before the test. We film a preview piece for the second test, so I’m in my ‘All Blacks’ suit feeling goofy as ever. A very large man in a Lions tracksuit approaches me, but instead of talking he starts gesturing with his hands. His grasp of sign language is pretty poor, so I politely inform him that I’m able to understand English if that’s what he wants to converse in.
It turns out the Lions management think I’m a spy from the All Blacks. I decide to be diplomatic and not bring up the counterpoint that being dressed the way I am would make me the world’s most poorly disguised spy. I remove the tie and jacket, however, I’ve got a more pressing problem – it feels like something has bitten me on my backside.
Sitting down for the duration of the second test is difficult, because there’s a growing lump right where my butt is hitting the seat. The pain is about as epic as the test itself, which sees the Lions pull off their first test victory in NZ in 24 years.
One painful journey back to Auckland later and I’m lying on a hospital bed, staring up at bright lights and a seemingly unnecessary amount of doctors. I’ve never been under general anaesthetic before, but I’m mainly worried about if I’ll need to take some sort of cushion to sit on in the media box at Eden Park.
The operation is a success, and I’m told that it was a skin abscess most likely caused by the radical change in diet and dramatic lack of exercise I’ve experienced over the last month. I can’t argue with this diagnosis, the most nutritious dish I’ve had on the journey so far was the new McDonalds Chicken McMuffin.
The pain has thankfully dissipated by the time I get to Eden Park for the last test. The whole week leading up has been one of intrigue and speculation, so I dress sensibly in case I’m accused of espionage again.
Of course, no one cares after the final whistle because all anyone can talk about is the referee. Sensing that I could cheer Steve Hansen up in the press conference, I lob him an easy question that’s not about the crazy ending of the game. I ask if he’s missed having Dane Coles in the squad, and he can’t resist making a dry quip about how the injured hooker had never actually left and stayed on in a mentoring role for Codie Taylor. To my surprise, the All Black coach then apologises and gives a surprisingly detailed answer about the role of the new players in the squad.
I’m feeling about as journalistic as I have on the whole tour, and it’s over. We make plans to go out, but they’re abandoned when we walk out the door at midnight. It’s absolutely pissing down – just like the day it started.
I go home, feeling like I could sleep for a week. Everything ended up going the opposite of the way it should’ve gone. The test series has ended in a draw. The Lions managed to beat the midweek sides they should’ve lost to. Even though I’m a Wellingtonian, I have a newfound place in my heart for the Crusaders for the wonderful food they gave me and the rest of the media.
The next Lions tour of New Zealand will be in 2029, and I will be far too old to be risking getting my health in a dodgy campervan by then. It’s highly unlikely I’ll ever experience anything like the last six weeks again in my life.