Sunday, June 25, 2017

A Lions Tour Diary by Michelle Tobin #7

Having left the hotel bar at 4.38am following our return from the Chiefs game, I was very glad that we had a leisurely departure time on Wednesday of midday. I lay the blame for the late night on four sociable Leinster fans (The Minions) who arrived on the Maori tour. Rugby really does bring all sorts together!

We began our journey back to  Auckland via Tauranga. The drive was short, but given that the Kiwi and Maori tours are now travelling together, things like check in take considerably longer when we arrive, especially like this one, into a hotel with one lift! But we have a lot of helpful guys in our groups who generously give time to help the less strong with their bags, so it wasn't the ordeal it might otherwise have been.

An optional trip to Mount Maunganui was available and never one to look a gift horse in the mouth I opted to make the short journey. The day was overcast and along with about half of the group I decided to eschew the trek up the mountain in favour of supporting the economy of the town! Had some wonderful food, even though I was one of the few not opting for the massive half metre pizza!

Back in Tauranga I was on a mission. I'd had a message from home asking me for a newspaper from that day, as a friend had a new niece and wanted a paper from the day. Got a bit complicated in that I was asked on Wednesday NZ time but the message was sent on Tuesday Ireland time. None the less I'd managed to pick up a local paper in Taupo with Tuesday's date and after a little late night search I was able to track down a Tauranga paper with Wednesday's. Both possibles covered. We popped into a few local hostelries on the way back; it appeared to be quiz night everywhere. Met the lovely Jess in the Crown & Badger, she'd just recently bought the business but made us feel like royalty. We all left with additional clothing thanks to her!

Thursday morning brought a 10am departure for Auckland via Counties Manukau RFC. Our second taste of grassroots rugby of the week, and this didn't disappoint. It didn't have the ceremony of Waitete earlier in the week but the welcome was every bit as sincere. Our host for the day was Phil Kingsley Jones, best known as the agent of the late rugby legend Jonah Lomu. Phil kept us entertained, we had a fantastic lunch and the welcome and hospitality from the club was phenomenal. Again the club shop was open, and my stash of non Munster rugby gear grew once more​.

Soon enough it was time to head to Auckland to our next hotel, this one a 5* in the City Centre. Not sure how it got that many stars; it looked the part and had the required facilities but the service was nothing short of shambolic from the moment we arrived and continues.​

It did mean we got to rub shoulders with some rugby greats around the lobby and restaurant but give me the 3* in Whangarei or the 4* in Auckland any day. The issues were out of the hands of the tour management, whose frustration at the poor service by the hotel was evident. None of us will be ​too upset to leave.

Thursday night started relatively low key, went back to a few familiar haunts. Pubs were grand but the restaurant with the poor service (but great food) referred to in my first blog was just as unpleasant as it had previously been. After dinner the Scarlets fan and I headed to catch up with a few, who'd skipped dinner, in an Irish  bar on the Harbour. Little did we expect but when we got there, their table had been joined by Donal Lenihan and Peter O'Mahony's father John. So we had exemplary company for a while, John was bursting with pride for his son, who had earlier been named Lions captain for the first test.

Speaking of the Lions team for the first test, I've previously mentioned that we had a prediction pool for the starting XV on our coach. Well I only went and won it!! I may not blog much about it but I do know a bit about rugby :D I was told that the tradition of the sweep winner buying sweets for the bus would not cut it given the size of the pot so I wracked my brains for an alternative and think I did ok in the end.

Thursday also brought me a room-mate. After three weeks flying solo I was joined by a lovely fellow Corkonian. I'd only met her briefly once before but knew from chats that we'd get on just fine. So far so good!

Friday was a down day, and with poor weather the desire to further explore Auckland was somewhat diminished. I went on a quest to find waterproof trousers, the really obvious thing I should have packed but didn't. It took considerably longer than expected but eventually caught up with a lot of the rest of our tour for a relaxed afternoon. Word came through of two spaces at a table in the front row in the Fanzone for the opening with Dan Carter and fellow All Black legend Rico Gear. No way I was missing out on that!

I'm still at that point where I struggle to work out which day is which. That Friday night definitely felt like a Saturday to me. At the opening I met up with one of the fabulous rugby friends twitter has brought me over the years and she joined a small group of us that went for dinner and a few drinks. As often happens, the best nights are the unexpected ones and our small group ended up in an Irish bar that felt like a sauna while the band played Fairytale of New York at 2am. Pure magic!

Saturday arrived, not only game day but first test day. Auckland had become significantly more red as the days went on, in sharp contrast to our first two visits, we were no longer big fish in a small pond. A leisurely morning was had​ before we ventured out for some refreshments prior to leaving ​for the pre match venue, the same one we'd had for the Blues game earlier in the month. This was the first time all three tours would be together, over 140 new arrivals on the Haka tour had joined us on Thursday. In the venue we had some great food, a few drinks and a bit of a sing song. Our quota of legends was boosted by Quinny, Martyn Williams and Brent Pope, joining Donal Lenihan who'd arrived the week before.

The game, well we know what happened. Didn't go as we'd hoped but all is not lost. The actual match experience was pleasant. We had three All Blacks fans in front of us but contrary to previous experiences, these guys were truly good sports, they knew their rugby, celebrated good play on both sides and didn't gloat when the better team on the day won the game. I did promise one that I would promote his campaign to be named New Zealand's best young farmer, his FB page is Hamish and his friends had driven six+ hours to be at the game but would have to miss subsequent tests as Hamish bids for success. Good luck Hamish, you're one of the good guys.

After the game we went back to our venue, again we are blessed with the attention to detail that RTI put into planning our trip. Having a venue for an hour to calm down, chat among ourselves, dissect the game, or just blot it out is priceless. I was approached to speak to BBC Radio 5 Live about the game and the result can be found from 25 minutes on - I do a good job of not sounding like I'm from Cork somehow. But the BBC suggest I should give the team talk on Saturday before the second test, and who am I to disagree. Warren, I'm available!

I'm enjoying every minute of this trip but as July draws closer, I'm starting to dread it all coming to an end. The folk I spend every day on the coach with have become friends, important friends at that. Not seeing people, like the two lovely sisters from Cork who always have a smile and a kind word for everyone, or the two fab couples at the front of the bus who have been friends for over 40 years and go out of their way to make sure people are ok, on a daily basis is something I'm not looking forward to. So for now, I'm going to keep on living in the moment, as well as keeping a sneaky eye on the future, South Africa 2021 is most definitely on my radar now and I know who I'll be travelling with. You might be able to guess too!

Back on the road tomorrow as we begin our ​journey ​towards Wellington. More fun adventures lie ahead. Cannot wait. I am a truly lucky and happy gal. On dreams, Billy Joel said "you can get what you want, or you can just get old". I'm surrounded by 30+ people from 21 to several times that and more, but we're all young, we're getting what we want, we're living our dreams.

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