We are World Record Holders; me, Al, and 3 friends we met up with from Sheffield Tigers. Along with 7,700 others we danced a Haka on the Village Green in Rotorua yesterday lunchtime. The sun shone, the eggy steam that is so much part of the city wafted across the crowd and 5 slightly embarrassed English people attempted to follow the instructions of the school kids from Rotorua. We did OK, hiding in the middle, but we certainly weren’t as scary as the team of Maori All Blacks in the match later on. That was one scary Haka.
I love Rotorua. It has a feel of the Happy Days set, and I keep expecting The Fonz to appear in the amazing local Ice Cream Parlour. We spotted several of the team wandering about on Friday, getting their hair cut, looking in shops and cafes, and generally just being tourists. ‘Would never happen in football’ was the comment I heard most! The city put on a fabulous firework display that night as part of the Maori New Year celebrations, and just like with the Haka, the Village Green was immaculate a few hours later, all litter gone and ready for the next communal event. Awesome.
In front of our apartment the mud and steam pools bubble and hiss all day long, and the Maori culture and language echo all around the city. We’ve listened to their music stars, both traditional and modern, tried to pronounce their language, and are planning to explore their culture and this weird landscape more, if it ever stops raining today!
As for the rugby, at the Rotorua International Stadium, I don’t know quite what I was expecting, but it was one crazy, crazy night. The free buses from the city, packed full of supporters, dropped us in what looked like the car park of an ordinary rugby club. We set off along a gravel path, past lots of rugby pitches, towards a pool of light in the distance. As we came over the ridge, below us was a huge bowl, with one stand, about the size of the one at Doncaster. Everywhere else was grass, sloping down to some concrete steps along the sides, and despite it being a couple of hours before kick off, the place was packed with people better prepared than us! They brought waterproof mats or rugs to sit on, or even a bin bag, and the stadium had organised possibly the biggest collection of portaloos I have ever seen. Loos were easy to find, food less so, but perhaps the priorities were correct? I don’t know what it looked like on tv, but it felt like a local ground, designed for a few thousand people, desperately trying to cope. Great atmosphere though, like a proper rugby club ground, not some corporate concrete stadium, where you never feel close to the action.
We never found our seats – we think we were supposed to be behind the goal on some temporary seating, but we couldn’t get round to the entrance to that area and standing down near the try line at the side seemed a better bet. Well, it was until the match started and everyone on the concrete terraces and on the grass sat down! And they stayed siting down, with pointed comments to the 2 tall Lions supporters to get out of the way, sit down, or move. We moved. Up to a walkway that was supposed to be kept clear but the stewards had given up on that. The official attendance was 28,000 I think, but since many were climbing over fences and security was a bit slack, to say the least, I reckon there were a few extra bodies in there.
And the rain started, the ‘fine soft rain’ that the Irish around us seemed to enjoy, and the match flew by at a speed that was scary. It was all a bit of a blur, but Halfpenny looked awesome under high balls, his tackling was solid, apart from the mess up with North down near us that led to the Maori try, and his kicking was a masterclass. Think he is nailed on for the test. The pack look solid, and any 10 would enjoy playing behind them, whoever gets picked, but I hope Farrell really is ready to start as Gatland says. It never felt that we were safe as the Maori just didn’t give up and always looked dangerous, and the slippery conditions meant that almost anyone could mis-time a tackle and end up with a card.
The rain was tipping down by the end of the game – anyone who had tried to put up a brolly found a beer can bouncing off it, or against them, from those behind further up the slope who simply couldn’t see. They have perfected the beer can lob – locals says that’s why people stay sitting down as they don’t appreciate the beer shampoo or the abuse. I’m glad we moved at the start before they used us as targets!
The rain, beer and thousands of feet made getting back up the grass slope quite a challenge and there were some muddy backsides around as people slid their way back to the bus queue. Well, it wasn’t really a queue, more like a general attack on any empty bus by a horde of marauding fans. Half a dozen students in day glo vests didn’t have a hope of controlling it!
Back in town, in Eat Street, an obvious name but at least you know what’s on offer, one topic has been the flak Gatland is getting over the replacements. I think that in some of his thinking he’s right, in that their job is to win the Tests, and everything else fits round that. The schedule is punishing, and the intensity of the games means that playing Tuesday and Saturday is almost impossible, either as a starter or off the bench. We’ve been here less than a week, and the jet lag is still doing weird stuff to my brain and body. How anyone can fly in and play a top level rugby game a couple of days later, I have no idea.
Picking some replacements from guys already in Australia and NZ means they can go straight into a midweek game. They know they aren’t first choice players, but looking at Haskell out on the pitch last night, not on the bench, but out there running as an extra tackler, ball carrier, water boy, sums up for me the attitude on the tour – all in together, do what it takes to win something epic.
So after 3 days in NZ, I can see the difference already to Australia in 2013. This whole country is so rugby nuts, it’s awesome. Everyone talks rugby, from the security guys at Auckland who passed our bags with the comment, ‘Good luck, you’re gonna need it’, to the lady cleaning our flat who thinks the best back row player is Faletau, to anyone in any bar or cafe. Oh, apart from guy in the mini-mart late at night who ended up in a discussion with Al on the ICC final, India v Pakistan. But he was Indian so that’s understandable.
The sun is now shining so it’s off to look at geysers and Kiwi birds – an interlude before the next battle over in Hamilton. No idea what the stadium there is like, but I will remember the Rotorua experience – brilliant, especially since we avoided the beer can bounce, and sliding on our backsides in the mud, full of spine tingling moments as well as the legacy of soggy, mud covered trainers!