I was lucky enough to be given tickets for the second test in the British and Irish Lions 2017 NZ tour last weekend in Wellington. It was epic and that was only the atmosphere in the stadium. To be honest, the atmosphere was what I went for and it didn’t disappoint. The Lions … Lions … Lions chant from the sea of red supporters was electrifying and compulsive and it’s been ringing in my head all week. In my book, the antics of rugby’s ‘Barmy Army’ — the glorious, enthusiastic, contagiously cheerful, campervan-enabled mas of Lions supporters — has been the main event of the tour, rather than the rugby itself. And no one could ever accuse these guys of having succumbed to beige!
There’s something improbably beguiling about tens of thousands of good-natured fans prepared to travel all the way round the world, leaving their summer for our winter to roar on their heroes. In a world where sports followers all too often split into to fanatical nationalist and tribal divisions and go to war, this tour has left it’s eccentric, but heart warming grace in a lot of hearts here.
I would have loved to be at last nights tour finale in Auckland. Instead, I went for the armchair experience helped along by a spectacular dinner and some very good wine. And what a match it was. Nail-biting to the very last with some incredible play. The big disappointment? It ended in a draw and we have to wait so many years for the re-match as the Lions only tour NZ every 12 years. The consolation for a dichotomized ex-pat like me? That it ended in a draw and both sides therefore won.
In truth, the All Blacks should have taken it out — they had their chances, but the British bulldog in me reveled in the doughty ‘we will never surrender’ spirit of my compatriots as they fought on to the last gasp, evening the score in its dying moments. I can tell you, I didn’t know whether to sing Rule Britannia, Swing Low, Flower of Scotland, Men of Harlech, Ireland’s call or Pokarekare ana for that matter.
With an English mother and a Scottish father, I’m a half-breed. Thinking about it, I’m actually more of a ‘bitsa’ if you go back another generation or two. In addition to both of those not always harmonious nationalities vying for prominence in my loyalties having lived in both countries for close to equal time, there’s also Irish, French and German. If you go back even further there’s likely some Viking in the mix. After a couple of decades in NZ, there’s now also a fair dollop of Kiwi super-imposed on it all.
When I was a kid, I used to watch test rugby with my father — one of the few things deemed OK for us kids to stay up late for. I can still remember the excitement building during each pulsating match and dad’s highly vocal ebbs and flows as points were won and lost and Five Nations slugged it out for national glory or against one of the great touring sides like the Springboks. But when the All Blacks were involved there was an extra frisson. An exoticism that few other teams could match. After all, they had the Haka and who could every forget the first time they saw one performed? The spine-chilling moment when the All Blacks line up and lay down the challenge to the opposition. It’s a primal declaration of intent. To my childish eyes, it was truly awesome. Decades later, it still is.
Living in New Zealand, it’s very easy to support our local side. They’re just …er … so good … and they win so often … and this country’s rugby mad … and you get caught up in it all. In all seriousness, the All Blacks truly are one of the world’s great sporting brands and one of this little country’s enduring successes. It’s hard not to succumb to their might and glamour, particularly as supporting Scotland can be bit of a test in its own right. On numerous occasions we may well have sent the English homeward to think again, but we’ve never beaten the All Blacks in 30 attempts, the first being at Murrayfield in 1905. That’s not ever. Never. Not even once. OK there have been two draws so it hasn’t been a complete whitewash and you have to take the wins where you can (as it were), but it is a teeny bit one-sided and depressing even for the most ardent fan. Mostly I’m just happy if we lose respectably. Ditto England, Ireland and Wales in the context of the All Blacks.
But last night I was proud to be a Brit! Progressively during this Lions tour, the land of my fathers (and sisters and cousins and aunts) has reclaimed me. The improbable alliance that is the British and Irish Lions is uplifting in a world where there is so much strife. As once BBC commentator put it, “they (the Lions) have done it once again, from disparate parts and across old enmities. In a modern world often focused on cold commercial gain and a narrow nationalism, they remain an idea apart and a reality to inspire. As you watched the two sides merge for a shared team photograph at the end, red shirts mixing with black, Englishmen with arms round Irishmen, a Welsh skipper congratulating a Welsh man of the match, a Scotsman ending as the tour’s leading try scorer, then you did understand what it was all about, after all.”
If people like these from places with deep-seated ancient grudges and not a few contemporary ones can set them aside and revel in the moment, there’s hope for us humans and our world.
Photo from The Daily Mail