Angst in Auckland where Lions romance is far from dead

The crowds lined the streets of Auckland on Thursday to welcome their heroes back to the big city with a grand parade, tens of thousands of them braving the rain to salute the champions.

Naturally enough there was a haka to kick things off before the trophy and team in black began their journey down the main thoroughfare, Queen St, towards the Viaduct Basin.

It sounds like another day of adulation for the All Blacks, back-to-back world champions in 2011 and 2015 as they re-entered the city gates ready to slay some Lions in this morning’s third and series-deciding Test at Eden Park. Yet the parade was not for Steve Hansen and his side, it was to honour a different Team New Zealand, the yachtsmen that were bringing the America’s Cup back home after 17 years.

Not that the All Blacks have lost their shine or their undisputed status as the best rugby-playing nation in the world, but last Saturday’s defeat to the British & Irish Lions has really upset the mojo of Kiwi supporters.

“Our fans have a massive part to play in who we are,” Hansen explained this week. “They have a massive expectation. Do they get a little bit more nervy when we lose? Of course they do, because that’s only natural, and that is probably what we have been experiencing at the moment.”

Six weeks ago, when Warren Gatland’s men arrived from the Northern Hemisphere and three days later blearily struggled through their jetlag to beat the NZ Provincial Barbarians in their opening game, they were dismissed in the stands at Whangarei — “Is this the best you’ve got?” — and the media coverage that followed as yet another Lions team preparing to be put to the sword, not just by the ABs but also the Maori All Blacks and five Super Rugby sides they had still to face.

A defeat to the Blues, their first of three visits to Eden Park, followed three days after that and from there on in the Test series was a foregone conclusion, 3-0 to the All Blacks.

In fairness, getting to 1-0 in the series a fortnight ago (visit two to Eden Park) was a relatively simple step for Kieran Read’s team, as the Lions were outmuscled and overpowered by a hungrier home side enjoying a 30-15 victory.

Yet here we are, on the morning of the final Test and there is a touch of nervousness in the ranks.

The Lions’ 24-21 win in Wellington last Saturday and the perceived nonchalance of Gatland’s decision not to return to Auckland to prepare for the final battle but instead spend three days in the lakeside paradise of Queenstown has knocked the New Zealand rugby public off their stride a small bit.

“All the angst of a World Cup final,” was the headline accompanying the weekly newspaper column by Wynne Gray, a veteran rugby journalist who has refused to go after Gatland in the fashion others on the New Zealand Herald have chosen.

“All Blacks fans riven with uncertainty but this is series we have craved,” read the column’s strapline.

The Lions had done the unthinkable and beaten New Zealand on home soil, the first defeat on these shores since 2008 and even more worrying, they had done it by keeping the barnstorming All Blacks tryless.

Suddenly the bravado had become muted. An excursion around Auckland Harbour on the eve of the game brought further evidence with the Kiwi skipper of an America’s Cup yacht, a 2007 model available for a thrilling tourist experience, exemplifying the mood swing by offering a less than bullish take on the Test match.

“Whatever happens on Saturday night, it will be a Kiwi coach on the winning side,” said Captain Eric. “Imagine that. A fortnight ago, Gatland was being lampooned on the Herald as a clown with a red nose, now he was one of their own!”

A small victory in itself in the ongoing mission to win hearts and minds, perhaps, but the Lions will be missed on these shores until their scheduled return in 12 years.

Whether the 2029 tour goes ahead is still in some doubt as the powers that be in World Rugby continue to thrash out their global calendar. If there are to be casualties, the sporting anomaly that is the Lions looks likely to be an early one unless the romance of the concept can seep into the hearts of the money men in English club rugby who seem determined to grab a bigger piece of the pie.

Losing to the Lions is unfathomable to everyone but the blazers it seems.

“The Lions should always be kept,” Ireland and Lions flanker Sean O’Brien said on Thursday. “I don’t see why you’d get rid of the Lions. It’s been a unique part of history.

“It’s a massive thing for players, a massive objective for players in their careers. As for the fans, it’s a world event, y’know? I can never see it disappearing. You see last weekend and the crowd, and what they bring to it, and how much we enjoy it as players. It’s an amazing thing, I think.”

All Blacks skipper Read concurred with his back-row rival that the tours should remain on the calendar.

“Just being involved you know, this is something as a kid you see these tours and as a professional rugby player, being involved has been fantastic,” he said.

“The amount of support that’s been around from the home unions coming over, it’s been awesome to see.

“For a player walking down the street, the Lions fans are pretty passionate and they love it. They wish you luck, which is cool. So it’s a big part of the calendar and it would be very sad if this was the last to come to New Zealand.”

For All Blacks head coach Hansen, it is even worth a disrupted stroll around Auckland with his wife as he is stopped by Lions and Kiwi supporters looking for selfies.

“You enjoy it for what it is. If you didn’t have those people who were passionate and keen to tell you what they thought about it, then you wouldn’t probably have the All Blacks. I’ve always thought that.

“You go out, hold on to your wife’s hand, and hope like heck they don’t want too many photos of her. She is way better looking than me!

“That’s one of the reasons why we love the Lions, because they bring the passionate fans. If you take a snapshot of when the whistle went last week, all those red jumpers just about jumped out of their seats onto the pitch. It has got to be good for rugby.”

Amen to that.

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