Thursday, June 22, 2017

A Lions Tour Diary by Michelle Tobin #6

I’ve tended to write blogs of several days together but decided that today deserves its own, thanks Jeff for indulging me. Today was one of the most special experiences I’ve had in my life and it deserves not to get lost among coach tales and Rotorua smells. 

Tuesday, game day. Chiefs this time, in Hamilton. RTI had made a good call, base us outside Taupo which gave us a base for Rotorua and Hamilton rather than short stays in lesser hotels. Yes it means a bit of a trek after the game BUT it meant we had a base for 4 days and got to spend the downtime as we chose rather than travelling. AND it smelled a lot more pleasant than Rotorua would have.

Alas I digress. Former Ireland and Leinster player and coach Kurt McQuilkin now lives in Taupo and his rugby club, Waitete is about an hour outside Hamilton. So no guessing where our pre game base was today. Kurt met us in the hotel lobby, and after some worrying Rassie talk (in case anyone has missed it, I’m a Munster woman through and through) we departed for Waitete. We were alerted that a special welcome was in store but could not have imagined what we actually received.

We pulled up to the club and were asked to disembark the coach but not to go anywhere until we were directed to move. A lovely lady met us and explained what would happen, so we moved as a pack of red, women to the fore, towards the clubhouse. The cameras and phones of locals were trained on us, and ours on them. As we approached the clubhouse, a Maori teenager in her high school uniform led the greeting, in a language we’ve become accustomed to hearing, if not comprehending. Our guide responded on our behalf as we neared the porch of the clubhouse which was packed with school children from five to eighteen. They performed for us a Haka followed by beautiful Maori welcome song (video on my snapchat @corkseashell), smiles on all their faces, tears in all our eyes. I say performed and not sang, because Maori music is not just about singing, the movement is part of it.

We were greeted in Maori and briefly in English by our Maori host. Donal Lenihan had been appointed as our spokesperson to accept their welcome and express our gratitude, and give a little background of the Lions and our multinational backgrounds. Donal also led us in a rendition of The Fields of Athenry, a rugby anthem familiar to all tourists, while not being a national anthem so it felt appropriate, even if the audience were bemused by some of the lyrics!

A handful of our tourists were invited to participate in a Hungi, the tradional Maori greeting where forehead and nose are pressed together and then we were ushered into the clubhouse. Little did we know it was effectively a trap. The school children flanked us left and right and began another Haka. It was the most intimidating yet most special experience I can remember, the passion on their faces, in their eyes, trying to focus on the chant but smiling beneath it all, just wow. Walking through that made every hair on my body stand on end.

Next we were directed to the outside area to see the Hangi, the traditional Maori cooking method we’d seen at the Tamaki Maori village the night before, but up close. Some of the men had come in at 6am that morning to set the fires that heated the volcanic rocks which then went into the pit to cook our food, cooking time was 4 hours 10 minutes we were informed.

On going back to the clubhouse, the enterprising club had set up a shop for their rugby gear at the back of the hall. Very few tourists left empty handed! Lunch was phenomenal, you could almost taste the hard work and love and generosity of the club members in the food. After a few short speeches, and the presentation of a signed Edinburgh jersey to the club, Donal L and Kurt did a very entertaining Q&A. I’m willing to overlook the dwelling on the 2009 Heineken Cup semi final between Leinster and Munster.

We had time for a drink and a chat with some of the locals before we departed to Hamilton. Had a great conversation with Kurt’s parents, Colin Mead’s wife had also taken time to come down to say hello, less than 24 hours after his statue had been unveiled just down the road. We stopped at that statue for a very brief photo opportunity before we continued on to Hamilton for the game.

Got to the stadium, had just arrived at the base of our stand when an announcement came over the tannoy that the game had been cancelled and to please leave the ground calmly. False alarm but there was one small pang of fear, fear that we would miss out on the game, rather than that something sinister was afoot.

Again we were in an uncovered stand but the conditions were kinder to us tonight. And the scoreline was too. Our second penalty try in two games, had the opposition forgotten the rules of the game? Delighted that this midweek team had finally got a win under their belt, and an emphatic one at that.

After the game we’d been invited to the Waikato Chiefs supporters’ club bar at the ground. The hour we had there passed in the blink of an eye and soon we were back on the coach, headed towards Taupo. The hotel were very accommodating, knowing it would be after midnight before we got back, they kept the bar open until 2 and extended breakfast until 11am on Wednesday. We also got the traditional “we need to keep you sober” free chips, followed by bread and butter. 1am chip butties rule!

Normal service will return for the next blog, but the Waitete welcome will stay will me, and my fellow tourists forever. It deserved its own blog.  New Zealand, the gift that keeps on giving. While you’re at it NZ how about a test win for us?

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