Fan in a van

This week we look back at our Camperfan’s tale of the 2005 Lions tour as he chugged the length and breadth of New Zealand in a motorhome

By Danny Coyle

The dream was over.

The triumphant entry of a stream of camper vans into Auckland for a final week victory party was not to be. Instead we processed into the rain-sodden City of Sails a defeated bunch. The waves and thumbs up that the people of New Zealand had welcomed us with over the previous five weeks had turned into two fingers held up on one hand, and a big fat zero formed by the other.

The authorities had done their best to make sure we enjoyed one last hurrah. At Alexandra Park on the edge of the city, usually the scene of that curious kiwi passion for watching horses draw two-wheeled carts around a dirt track at a snail’s pace, the raceway became a temporary base for our tired-looking motor homes.

The venue’s stables were converted into an English theme bar and its sport’s cafe remained open for us to party into the wee small hours and then some.
Except we just didn’t feel like it.

Those who had paid a king’s ransom for tickets to the final Test, hoping that it would be the decider, moped around the place cursing their luck and looking for any sadist keen to take them off their hands and watch another dismantling of the tourists.

Those that hadn’t bothered to secure seats at Eden Park wore the look of men who had been given a last minute reprieve at the gallows.

The spark that had ignited the unforgettable atmosphere in the cities we had rolled into all across New Zealand was missing, but for every camper-fan the memories of what had gone before will always live fresh in the mind.

The unsophisticated banter from Kiwi fans, the vitriol towards the Lions from just about every newspaper, the queue of vans peopled by hungover supporters as we boarded the ferry to the South Island, the shocking weather at Christchurch for the first Test that even had me casting envious glances at those black waterproof ponchos donned by All black supporters (I resisted of course).

It has all served to make it an unforgettable experience. The early provincial games provided us with the opportunity to visit towns that don’t usually figure on the itinerary of many tourists in New Zealand.

In New Plymouth where the Lions faced Taranaki, every shop from the bakery to the building society had some sort of red and black display in its window and a message of support for the home team. In hindsight I would have popped into the ski hire shop before going to the stadium had I known I was to be confronted with the steepest grass bank I have ever seen.

Slaloming my way down at half-time clutching four cans of lager and a portion of fish and chips (or fush and chups as they say over here) was an achievement in itself.
This game provided my first insight into the psyche of the Kiwi rugby fan and gave me a taster of the unsophisticated banter that we would encounter from our opposites as we travelled from game to game.

Their one chant consisted of little more than “Go the ‘Naki!” and when they weren’t yelling that they were either encouraging various members of their side to break their opponents’ legs or calling into question the legitimacy and eyesight of the match officials. This mattered not to the local paper, the Taranaki Daily News, that bemoaned the ‘well lubricated Pommy voices’ that had drowned out the ‘polite cheering of Taranakians’.

Perhaps this particular journalist was just in a different part of the stadium. That one inaccuracy aside, the papers in every town enjoyed their opportunity to welcome the thousands of Lions fans and all credited us for our high spirits and excellent behaviour, many claiming that Kiwi supporters could definitely learn a thing or two from their

British and Irish counterparts. They left their bile for the Lions players and management, and stepped up their assault following the defeat to the Maori in Hamilton.

Chief among the mudslingers was the Herald on Sunday’s Gregor Paul: “Wednesday suggested it. Last night proved it. The Lions are mince and potatoes dressed as exotic fare,” he wrote, going on to lambast their performance as a shambles before needlessly picking on Welshman Shane Williams, describing him as “small enough to be barred from some fairground Rides”, and joking that if not selected for the Test matches, he could “console himself with a role in the remake of Saturday Night Fever” thanks to his ability to dance away from defenders.

Between them, the newspapers must have spent more time trying come up with derogatory remarks, most of them aimed at Clive Woodward, than they did actually reporting on the rugby.

The presence of Alastair Campbell also enabled them to label any utterance that came out of the Lions camp as spin and as the Test series swung New
Zealand’s way, any idea of objectivity went completely out of the window.

Their inelegance was matched by the Kiwi fans. In terms of hospitality and general friendliness from the man on the street, the New Zealand people are
second to none, but get them on to the subject of their winning rugby team and they turn into quite a different animal. Shrieks of “You’re shit!” and “Go back to where you came from!”, were not uncommon in the wake of every Test match.

One charming chap even took the trouble to pull up alongside me in his car as I trudged along the pavement, wind down his window, repeat the scoreline of the second Test and yell “The Lions are f*cking shit! Is that the best you got?” before screeching off, presumably on his way to an anger management session.

Someone needs to tell these Kiwis that there really is nothing wrong with being magnanimous in victory. If only we Lions fans had had the opportunity to show them how that was done when it really mattered.

It’s for these reasons though, that touring in New Zealand is something special, from the comically bad press to the insulting fans, it simply wouldnt be the same without them. Whatever our differences over the rugby, we at least agree on one thing, that the Lions should continue. Having travelled for five weeks and been part of the experience, it is clear that these tours are something special and deserve a place on the sporting calendar.

New Zealand is already looking forward to 2017 when another convoy of camper vans garbed in the flags of the four home nations will take to its roads once more, painting their towns red and pouring money into the tills of its pubs quicker than you can say 3-0. I’ll certainly be there, but I might hire a faster van next time.

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