Letter from Rotorua: No escaping the past in Christchurch

From the English City, via the Edinburgh of the South, to the spiritual home of the Maori people, the last seven days of this 2017 British and Irish Lions tour have been a study in the shifting timeframes, cultures, and traditions of New Zealand.

Christchurch Cathedral, New Zealand, which was damaged in the 2011 earthquake.

For the Lions, it has been more of the same: eat, train, play repeat from Christchurch to Dunedin and on to Rotorua, where, this morning, they were facing the Maori All Blacks, this tour’s unofficial fourth Test.

Each of these cities has offered something very different.

A first look at a road map of Christchurch, the largest city on the South Island, would hint at a town with its foot planted firmly in its pioneer past and religious roots, as an outpost of the Anglican church, the streets honouring cathedral cities elsewhere, from Gloucester and Manchester, Tuam and Cashel to Colombo and Barbados.

Yet, Christchurch very much represents New Zealand at its forward-looking best, albeit enforced, following the destructive and fatal earthquakes of 2010 and 2011.

It has taken time to start the rebuild, what with dismantling the stricken buildings, quake-proofing the surviving structures, and waiting for the insurance companies to pay out the NZ$70bn (€45bn) that made those seismic events the most expensive in history.

“Just getting things done, and finding the people to do it, takes time,” said Mark Gilbert, of Hassle-free Tours, who has been rebuilding his sightseeing bus business since he was forced to call a halt in the immediate aftermath of the earthquakes.

Gilbert’s Christchurch City Highlights tours are conducted on 1960s, London Routemaster double decker buses, befitting his hometown’s links to England. And the tours very much embrace the extensive transformation the city is undergoing.

Far from being a mawkish tour of devastation and destruction, it is a testament, he says, to the resilience and inspiring nature of the people of Christchurch.

There are now more restaurants and bars than there ever were, while international retailers are opening stores there, attracted to the glossy new feel the city is exhibiting in its central business district and beyond, while the increased investment on top of the insurance payments is encouraging people back to Christchurch in search of new jobs, and a fresh start, in a thriving city that has a very modern outlook.

Moving on to Dunedin, therefore, represented something of a step back in time, and not just because of the performance of the Lions (the gloss of the victory over Super League top dogs, the Crusaders, was wiped out by defeat to the Highlanders). Comparisons to Christchurch are harsh, but what the more southerly port and university city of Dunedin, the Scottish Gaelic name for Edinburgh, lacked in sophistication was made up for by its people. Fellas like Dave Kernahan, who was running up and down the world’s steepest street, Baldwin Street, in Dunedin’s suburbs, 30 times a day until his knees gave out in his mid-sixties.

The street with a lung-busting incline can be unforgiving to the foolhardy drawn to descend it in increasingly risky ways, such as the two men who died careering down Baldwin Street in wheelie bins, only to collide with a car.

To Kernahan, who befriended a colleague at the top of his street and offered to show us an even better view from the peak of nearby Mount Cargill, the world is populated by idiots and “good jokers”, and we were fortunate to be considered the latter, as we looked out to a stunning vista, down onto Dunedin’s harbour, the Otago Peninsula, and beyond to the Pacific Ocean, next stop Chile.

Into the night and an agitated guy in his 20s approaches.

“I’m dying to do a haka, but my mates aren’t here. Can I do one to you, mate?”

There is no escaping the haka in New Zealand, not even on a night out in a town centre, and, before he knows it, the Irish Examiner’s rugby correspondent is standing firm, as Dunedin man begins his solo ritual.

“A ka mate, ka mate; ka ora, ka ora

And so it goes, until he is right up close and personal, with his eyes bulging. We high five, embrace, and off he goes.

Two days later, the symbolism of the war-posture dance is brought home in Rotorua. The Maori All Blacks are at home here, in central North Island, and there is no better place for them to play the Lions, whom they beat in 2005 for the first time in eight attempts, having first played the tourists in 1930.

“It’s one of the unique sporting spectacles,” Lions head coach, Warren Gatland, said. He watched that 2005 game at his hometown, Waikato Stadium, in Hamilton, and he knows exactly what this contest will entail, in terms of the passion and intensity of the opposing team.

“There’s a special aura, or mana, they talk about here, that the Maori bring, culturally how important it is to a country.

“They will have been engaging with the community, and the players are incredibly proud to put that jersey on, and represent their own tribes, not just the people of New Zealand.”

Veteran All Black back rower, Liam Messam, is as proud to pull on the Maori jersey and represent his iwi (tribe) as he was to represent his national team, and he underlined why the haka is important to New Zealand’s teams. “In Maori culture, it’s about us getting ready for battle,” Messam said.

“Back in the day, it was about obviously going into war. But, now, it’s more the conventions to honour one another than it is for the opposition.

“That’s my understanding. I’m more worried about my team-mates than I am the opposition.”

They are more than just team-mates, as Messam explained; they are a band of brothers with a shared heritage and genealogy, known as whakapapa.

This week, the team room in Rotorua was decorated to resemble a Maori meeting house, such as the one the Lions were received in at their national welcome, at the Waitangi Treaty Grounds, a couple of weeks ago, with its intricate wood carvings and woven, flax wall hangings. Leinster-bound Chiefs wing, James Lowe, echoed all his team-mates, who have been asked what it means to play for the Maori and wear the silver fern on their chests.

“I guess, as a kid, you’ve always dreamed of representing your country and I guess being part of this in a deeper way, on my mother’s side, this is their home,” Lowe said. “So, it’s huge. We’re bound by blood, so there’s something a bit more in that.

“This is a team where you’re brothers before you put on this shirt, before you put on this fern.”


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