13 Jun 2017

On the tail of the Lions

1:31 pm on 13 June 2017

Opinion - Ahead of tonight's clash in Dunedin, Jamie Wall gives an insider's view of the south-bound tour.

A Lions fan rejoices at the match against the Crusaders.

A Lions fan rejoices at the match against the Crusaders in Christchurch. Photo: Photosport NZ

This weekend saw the Lions head south, where things got a bit more interesting. We tracked their movements down the mainland, stopping first in Christchurch to watch them take on the unbeaten Crusaders.

The mood in the Garden City was one of confidence; after all, they hadn't had to watch the Crusaders lose in quite a while. Add in the reasonably good history that Canterbury has enjoyed over the Lions in the last 100 and a bit years, plus the fact that when the home side loses they go down swinging.

AMI Stadium is a temporary structure of scaffolding and plywood, but it still makes for an imposing venue when it's full of home fans. They brought out a choir pre-match, who gave a haunting rendition of Vangelis' 'Conquest of Paradise', which is the familiar theme you hear when the Crusaders run on the field.

What you usually see when the Crusaders take the field is a barrage of points and inevitable victory, which is the exact opposite of what happened. The stadium's media section is basically just a row of seats next to the regular punters, of which I was at the end of.

I placated a pretty inebriated season ticket holder who was hell-bent on giving me his opinion on the referee by gifting him the official lanyard for my tour media pass. This earned me a brief respite and a free beer.

Several other drunk fans came and asked me where Welsh journalist and noted All Black critic Stephen Jones was sitting. I said he was on the other side of the stand - he was actually only a few seats away, but they didn't bother to look.

Bryn Hall passes the scrum ball, watched by Lions' Sean O'Brien.

The Crusaders' Bryn Hall passes the scrum ball, watched by Lions' Sean O'Brien. Photo: AFP

At the final whistle the reaction was one of disbelief than anything else. I was expecting some trouble on the way out, but it seemed that the home fans had already gotten over the result and were bragging about how they would win this year's Super Rugby title.

The next day we drove our campervan to Dunedin, where we were greeted by a stunning sunset and marked increase in temperature. The campground was abuzz with activity, however it was of the teenage girl variety because it seemed to have been booked out for a college netball tournament rather than an international rugby tour.

Instead of being kept up by Welsh hymns and Irish drinking songs we found ourselves overhearing Ed Sheeran and a lot of giggling.

For visiting fans, it's an endurance game

It seemed that the punishing tour schedule isn't just hard on the players, but the Lions' fans too.

Unfortunately for Dunedin, a lot of the travelling supporters have skipped the trip to the deep south - not because they don't want to come, but because a drive north to Rotorua for the next match against the Māori All Blacks in just a few days is a bit daunting for a lot of first-time visitors.

That's a real shame, but Forsyth Barr Stadium will still be packed to the roof for the Lions and Highlanders match. I talked to a couple of guys who knew what it was like to play the Lions in front of a fervent home crowd back in 1993, however Otago legends John Leslie and Josh Kronfeld claimed they couldn't really remember the game.

Both seemed keen to talk about how good the party was afterwards, which is a pretty clear representation of priorities for a student playing rugby in the amateur era.

The Lions haven't had much success in Dunedin - that hiding from Otago in 1993 can sit alongside ones from 1959 and 1966 as well. Tonight will be their first-ever match against the Highlanders though, a team with the ability to go the length of the field to score tries.

However so do the Crusaders, and look what happened to them.

Jamie Wall grew up in Wellington and enjoyed a stunningly mediocre rugby career in which the single highlight was a seat on the bench for his club's premier side. He's enjoyed far more success spouting his viewpoints on the game, and other topics, to anyone who'll care to listen.

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