The best thing about the Lions tour is the opposition. The All-Blacks, as I describe to athletics friends, are the Usain Bolts of rugby – the greatest of all-time. Every single fixture, be it warm-up or test, affords the opportunity to watch New Zealand rugby and witness attacking skills we just don’t see in the northern hemisphere.
I didn’t really have to question what the Lions tour was all about until the second warm-up game with the Auckland Blues. Arriving in New Zealand in February for a 6-month stint, in earnest, I had bought my tickets ($50) for the June fixture in March. I looked into my wardrobe that evening, the Blues Jersey beside the Lions one, both Christmas presents.
In a professional capacity, I had spent a day with the Blues guys the week before, met the players, the management and was generally blown away by their humility. I had some investment in these guys, some shared values at least.
I looked at the Lions jersey again. Four nations slammed together, to which I was invested in only one. I wanted the Irish boys to do well. I’m a Munster fan, so I was particularly keen to see Stander, Murray and O’Mahony excel as individuals, but collectively, who are they when not attached to Munster or Ireland? It’s a phenomenal achievement for them to be deemed the best of the best amongst 4 nations but for me, as a fan at least, that’s where the pride ends.
In the end, I wore the Blues jersey and couldn’t help but celebrate the attacking flair of the Kiwi’s, unzipping what seemed like a collection of misfits with ease. The emotions I experienced before, during and after the game meant I was fairly certain that the Lions meant little to me.
I became intrigued instead by the ‘Lions’ fans. Who were these people? Did they really possess that feeling on game day that I would if it were Ireland? Dressed in the gear, the backpacks and even the lion’s mane. ‘Lions, Lions, Lions’, went the chant, I could never bring myself to sing.
I get the feeling the majority fitting the description were British, more often English. I wondered if to really feel part of a ‘British & Irish’ empire roaring, did you have to come from where the empire started? I stopped wearing the Lions jersey, even on casual outings. Kiwi’s find it hard enough to distinguish between Britain and Ireland without me painting myself red.
My family were here for the first test along with a few friends. Of course, the texts in the months leading up to the tour were variations of ‘Any tickets?’. The response was variations of ‘No and I don’t know anyone that does’.
No doubt for those at home this was only serving to heighten the mystique, ‘wow, not even the locals have tickets, it must be good’. The reality was that on the eve of the tour ‘face-value’ tickets were available at $390. There is also tickets available for the last test at a similar price. A small price to be a part of the ‘greatest rugby series on earth’ or to ‘join the pride’. The more the slogans were repeated, the more it became like the British prime minister repeating ‘strong and stable’, you started to believe it less and less.
Thankfully, my pride and many others opted for the fan zone; the stadium was one step too extortionate for a team we had little to identify with. Meeting the head of sports science from a super rugby side in the fan zone, endorsed our decision. ‘I thought you’d have had a good seat mate?’, ‘I could have but lots of my friends couldn’t get tickets, so I came here’. With the exception of British and Irish people who save up to be a part of the tour via packages, in the same way we all save up for a holiday, the access for anyone else was limited to a ballot (that nobody I met in New Zealand had won) or corporate hospitality. A Lions tour does feel like a p**s up for rich people, no identity required, only cash.
Whilst New Zealand is beautiful, serene, diverse, tolerant and has given me an unparalleled 6-month experience, Auckland, host to two of the three tests is perhaps the most soulless city centre I’ve ever been to. High rise financial buildings and apartments over-looking yachts in a harbour encapsulates a city centre whereby it’s so quiet you can almost hear New Zealand’s 1% rattling around in their ivory towers. The premium rugby event and the relentless promotion of the Americas cup (a yacht race that costs millions), in a country with metastasising inequality is somewhat nauseating.
The antithesis to Auckland’s city centre is the HAKA. A cultural display of brilliance, fitting for the brand of rugby that follows and again, makes every game worth watching. Ironically, those responsible for a cultural identity afforded to all New Zealanders are at the bottom of the chasm of inequality between those inside Eden Park and those outside – the Maori. Coming from a country like Ireland where we have our own music, language, dance and gaelic games – the haka is really appreciated.
It could be my own ignorance, but I’m struggling to see past hype of a Lions tour. I can see the meaning for a player, but as a fan, I’m lost.