After almost six weeks, 9 games, having traveled thousands of kilometres up and down New Zealand (who's idea was the up and down criss cross schedule anyway??) the day was finally here, last test day and the series up for grabs. After an exhilarating victory in Wellington last Saturday, the final test was not the dead rubber many people expected it to be. And so on Saturday morning I woke with nerves, excitement and a little fear. You can add to that sadness, as I opened my Rugby Travel Ireland envelope to remove my final match ticket and drinks vouchers.
If you've read all the other instalments, you might have gathered by now that I'm an emotional and sentimental person, who's nervous around water and heights but passionate about her rugby. If you're still with me after all that, well done!
My fantastic roommate and I eased ourselves into match day with room service breakfast. However, we'd placed the order in the small hours after Friday night's gala so to say we'd over ordered would be putting it mildly, the food that arrived could have fed five people easily. We didn't do it justice alas.
The initial plan had been to head to the FanZone in Auckland that morning but a combination of a more leisurely start to the day and a 2.30 departure to our pre game venue meant that didn't happen. I had a priority errand to run (I'd run out of Instax film) before we joined more of our contingent in a hostelry close to our hotel, one that served half decent Guinness...bet you can guess who selected the venue!
The bar was split pretty much 50/50 All Black/Lion fan but the locals were friendly. Got talking to an All Black fan who is a friend of Rob Penney's. The Munster folk amongst us asked that a message be passed to him, we want him back! Fascinating that the same fan had paid just over 10% of what we paid for the entire tour, for a ticket and five "free" drinks for the game. Brought home the value we'd got with RTI!
Before we knew it it was time to head back to the hotel to depart to our pre game venue. It was the same venue we'd had for the Blues game and the First Test, we were hoping that didn't have any significance! Much laughter and craic (yes we did have Bohemian Rhapsody for the 200th time this tour) was had, as well as some social beverages and good food. Our resident face painter, the baby of the Leinster family I mentioned in #9, was in full form and churning out full logo faces as well as stripes, dots and whatever else you fancied in red, green, white and/or blue at the rate of knots.
The beauty of that venue was that Eden Park was less than a ten minute stroll up the road so around 6pm we decided the time had come to make the stroll up the road. Obligatory programmes purchased, and I treated myself to a Lions bear, reduced for the final game. I'd earlier purchased a cape flag for the princely sum of $2.97!
The forecast was for rain and we were very aware that our seats were very much uncovered but so excited were we that it could have been 40 degree heat, sub zero or monsoon and the red army wouldn't have cared one iota!
Before the game it was truly lovely to see almost the entire squad out for warm up and to soak up the atmosphere. It was a little heartbreaking to see Peter O'Mahony out there in training gear rather than in red, but the back row was always going to be the toughest call to make and whether I agreed with Gatland or not, the call was his to make.
The atmosphere in Eden Park was electric. More 50/50 than last week, there was a lot of red to be seen but it felt like there were a lot more All Blacks, and they gave as good as they got! I'm not sure if it came across on tv, and I should have mentioned this before but there had been an attempt to get a rugby chant established all tour, in theory it went "Tutira mai, tatu tatu" but we'd hijacked it from a very early stage so that it rang out across the stadium as "Tutira mai, LIONS, LIONS!" We'd taken it over to the extent that they had given up blasting it out over the stadium sound systems, instead resorting to a similar song, one that was harder to chant over but we gave it our best shot.
The game was a real heart stopper. Injuries, penalties and our good friend Romain all featured, but the last ten minutes were possibly the most intense ten minutes of rugby I'd ever experienced. And so it was a bit of an anti climax when the game actually ended. Mixed signals from the ref meant that nobody was sure, for at least a minute, that the game had ended, and it was a draw, meaning a tied series, shared spoils, a moral victory for the lions and a sensed loss for the All Blacks.
The All Black sentiment was most palpable in Kieran Read's speech on being presented with his 100th cap. It was quite clear that the words had been put together expecting an All Black victory, it didn't quite work for a draw. The disappointment was evident in his body language and voice.
To be honest, the draw was weird, anti climactic, but better than a loss. Still we celebrated the presentation and even though the rain had finally arrived, we stayed on to clap the Lions round the pitch. You could see the appreciation from the players for the support the red army had given them, some of us going back to the start of June in Whangarei!
When we finally left the stadium it was back to our private venue for a post mortem, the last night we would all be together, all 300+ of the RTI tourists, along with our legends Quinny, Nugget, Donal and Brent. Radio 5 live were there again but I wasn't on duty this time so it was nice to be a spectator. Caught the final coach back to the hotel, all a little deflated. Decided to call it a night, on a wet Auckland night, the effort to get into a hostelry was a bridge too far. Either showing my age or tour fatigue, who knows!
The tour might be officially over rugby wise, but our trip has a few days to go yet, the plan is to enjoy every last minute of it. And on I go, one final blog post to follow once I get home. For now, this Lioness will continue to make the most of the end of this trip of a lifetime, far far from home.