Thursday, June 15, 2017

A Lions Tour Diary by Michelle Tobin #4

Apologies for the lack of posts for a while, it's been a busy week! This post comes to you from a very early morning coach ride from Christchurch to Picton as we work our way towards Rotorua for Saturday's game. It's 7.30am on Thursday morning and as ever, we are all present and correct on the coach. Pretty unexpected that a group of over 30 adults have never missed an early morning start. Too much fun to miss out on!

I left you last week as we were about to fly to Christchurch. I had overpacked slightly (!) and had sent stuff home from Auckland but had to shuffle the rest to get my hand luggage down to close to the 7kg carry on limit which was strictly enforced. Two more internal flights await so will have to play that game a few more times!

Arrived in Christchurch after dark and not feeling like exploring a gang of us decided to stay in the hotel for food and refreshments. May have had something to do with the cold, winter was well and truly evident on the South Island. This turned out to be a good call as we met a really lovely couple from Dunedin, Nikki and Mark, who were so enamoured with the company that they invited us to their home when we visited a few days later.

Friday morning about half the group had an early start as we took the Tranzalpine Express from Christchurch to Greymouth. An absolutely stunning 4 hour train journey from coast to coast of the South Island. The train had an outdoor viewing carriage for those brave enough to venture out for photos in the baltic conditions. I found 90 seconds to be just about tolerable! A short lunch break in Greymouth and we were back on the train for the return journey. Having paid close attention to the scenery and commentary on the first leg, we were more sociable on the return, there was even a bit of a sing song much to the amusement of the others in the carriage. Lovely Thai meal when we got back, amazing food and really really reasonable too.

The late kick off meant we had plenty of time on Saturday to explore. I was delighted to catch up with a friend from university who I hadn't seen in 20 years as she teaches science down here now. She gave me a personal tour of downtown Christchurch, past the half demolished and boarded up buildings. Amazing that after so many years there is still so much to do. Think they need to talk to the guys from Tokyo! After a coffee stop we headed up very very scary mountain roads to the Sugarloaf peak overlooking Christchurch. The views were worth it though. Down into Lyttleton port before heading on to New Brighton for a stroll along the prom.

En route back to my hotel we took a detour through some closed roads around Bexley, a red zone area. Almost all the houses are gone, never to be rebuilt. We searched for a walnut tree that marked the site where her friends' house had been. Without street signs, it was difficult but it brought home the difficult personal experiences people had after the earthquake. Bexley is like a cemetery for houses, all that could be seen were plants, and outlines of where houses had once been.

Our pre-game reception was in the hotel this time. We were honoured to be joined at this by Brendan "Chainsaw" Laney, a friend of some of the Edinburgh contingent. After some fascinating tales it was time to head to the stadium. Tonight we had not just the Haka but three whole laps of the Crusaders’ knights on horseback. First time was entertaining but it quickly got tired. As for the game itself, we knew this was going to be a tough game so to win was special.  The nicest thing a Crusaders fan said to me all night was "well done, you buggers" - they had not been expecting a loss! Back to the hotel for some more banter with locals and visitors alike before calling it a night.

Early enough start on Sunday as it's a 4 hour journey to Dunedin since the coast road was closed. Stopped in Timaru for coffee and then in Oamaru for lunch. Mike Mullins was joining us for lunch so I was honoured, along with the rest of the Munster gang, and a few strays, to join his table, in the end I was sitting right beside him! I get a little starstruck around rugby players that I rate so it took a little time before I relaxed! Mike had brought a selection of his rugby jerseys with him, Munster, Ireland and teams he'd played with. He invited us to try them on and I had to try that little piece of history, signed jersey, from Munster's 2006 Heineken Cup winning team. To see Axel's signature at the heart of the jersey was very moving. Among the other jerseys were Mike Catt's 40th cap England jersey, complete with mud stains!, and a Stade Francais jersey with not a trace of pink!

Arrived in Dunedin and our South Island driver Ricky brought us on a whistle stop tour of Dunedin to help us get our bearings. Checked into our accommodation before venturing out to suss out what was on offer in our student area of Dunedin. Located a hostelry with pool tables,beverages and for the sensible, food. Alas we didn’t realised that the “Baa” closed at 10 on a Sunday night so for those who didn’t opt for early food, the closest option was McDonalds. It did “exactly what it says on the tin” ;)

Monday morning a handful of the brave few decided to take on Baldwin Street, “the steepest street in the world”. It didn’t feel so bad at the start but half way up we hit an incline that “steep” just didn’t do justice to. Eventually all five of us made it to the top and after a few pics, we headed back down. After a short refreshment stop we wandered down to suss out “the Octagon”. Joining friends outside a bar we were excited to see Jack McGrath, Joe Marler and Dan Cole choose the same establishment for lunch. We respected their privacy beyond a wave to them, alas the other fans were not quite so respectful.

In the afternoon, eight of us headed out to meet Mark & Nikki we’d met in Christchurch, initially at their bowling club in St. Kilda and later in their home. The regulars in the bowling club were bemused at the group of invaders but opened up with tales of rugby, Maori legends, war and family heritage. On to their house where our hosts treated us like royalty. Amazing food, wine and great company. Hard to believe we’d met less than a week earlier in Christchurch.

Game day arrived again, the weather had turned. Monday was mild with blue skies but Tuesday morning brought epic storms and cold temperatures. I really thought I knew rain but NZ has blown my mind when it comes to precipitation!!! When we found respite we headed downtown briefly before our coach picked us up to bring us to our pre-game venue, Speights brewery. A lovely meal was had, though the drinks service was slow as they ran out of wine glasses. It appears Dunedin was out of practice at hosting big games! Mike Mullins and his son joined us again and I was delighted to get a photo of the Munster contingent and Mike in his 2000 Heineken Cup shirt behind the Munster flag. A special memory for the gang, even if Mark was awol!

Given the unfavourable conditions, a covered stadium was most welcome, though not warm. A breeze blew through that made us glad of the layers we’d still worn. No Haka tonight, a short presentation ceremony but significantly shorter than anything that had gone before. The game,well it wasn’t great. But as with the rest of the tour, the scores, at this stage anyway, are incidental. After the game we had an invitation from Alhambra Rugby Club to join them and many interesting conversations were had.

Early departure Wednesday, this is the week of early starts and long drives. Stopped at the Moeraki boulders to see rocks that wouldn’t have looked out of place in Star Wars or Alien. Next stop was Timaru for lunch before returning to Christchurch for the night. Back in the same hotel, Mark, the Manager, remembered me well enough to insist on giving me a free drink in the bar, not sure if that was  good thing or not! We were relatively sensible and opted for an early-ish night given today’s early start.

One of the guys on our group gave me an Irish compliment “it’s a great blog but it’s boring, it needs characters” I thought I’d start with him! A Clare man with a big heart, and an even bigger hat if you end up sitting behind him, he’s definitely a character. He’s on tour with his lovely wife, and keeps us entertained. His search for the best pint of Guinness in New Zealand continues and I can’t but commend his dedication to the research project he has so selflessly undertaken. Munster men go that extra mile!

Hard to believe it’s two weeks since I arrived in NZ, and 4 games out of 10 are already over. A 50/50 success rate isn’t ideal but I dreamt of going on a Lions Tour to NZ, and I’m living that dream. The test series is still there for the taking. We have a first test starting XV on the bus, with a nice pot for the winner. Entries had to be in before the squad for the Maori game was announced, and I was very pleased with my 13/15. Despite accusations of National bias, I’m happy to report 5 Ireland/5 Wales/5 England - who exactly was I being biased towards/against. As for Scotland, you need to talk to Gatty about that!

The tour is going too fast for my liking, I’m loving every second of it and again I’ll say we have a great group. We have a wonderful balance between scheduled and free time and I genuinely have no complaints. Long may that continue! We are working our way towards Rotorua for Saturday’s game and I have a feeling I’ll really appreciate the decision to stay in Taupo an hour away. Let’s just hope the only thing in  Rotorua that stinks is the sulphur!

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Taken by JLP from RDS press box on Nov 16, 2019