There will be some who believe the Lions should have been in recovery mode back in Auckland yesterday morning rather than marching up the hill at the Waitangi Treaty Grounds to sing a few songs.

Yet if ever there was an occasion to highlight the power and uniqueness of the Lions as well as underline its commitment to the people of the countries it tours, then it was the Powhiri, or Maori welcome ceremony, at New Zealand’s most symbolic and historic site.

It was here, looking out across the beautiful Bay of Islands in the north of the North Island that New Zealand’s founding document, the Treaty of Waitangi, was signed on February 6, 1840, by the British Crown and Maori chiefs, both colonisers of these Pacific Ocean islands.

Yesterday, 177 years later, a different invasion force arrived in Waitangi as the 41 Lions, their coaches, administrators and support staff climbed the hill from Hobson’s Beach up to the Carved Meeting House, Te Whare Rúnanga, accepting three different challenges from a reception committee of Maori warriors en route to the Powhiri.

And quite a reception it was, for this was a national welcome with Maori from across Northland, Auckland, and even Sydney, Australia, gathered at the Treaty Grounds above the shimmering bay on a gorgeous sunny morning.

The first challenge had taken place in private, in front of a 35-metre long ceremonial war canoe known as Ngatokimatawhaorua, before the Lions squad progressed to the top of the Treaty Grounds to be greeted by another group of warriors, captain Sam Warburton accepting their challenge by picking up a wooden spearhead laid on the ground in front of him.

Then it was on to the final challenge, in front of the Meeting House, and this was the biggest of them all, a series of Hakas performed by more than 400 warriors. 

The Lions looked solemn to a man, perhaps reflecting on a less than stellar performance in their opening game of this 10-match tour, a 13-7 win over the New Zealand Provincial Barbarians, just further south in Whangarei.

Yet the ferocity and volume generated by the Maori will have shaken them from any introspection and they dutifully filed into the Meeting House for a series of ceremonial speeches, followed by the Lions’ response, in song, the players’ choir running through its repertoire of Highland Cathedral for Scotland, Jerusalem for the English, the Fields of Athenry for Ireland, preceded by Robbie Henshaw speaking in Irish, and the Welsh hymn Calon Lan, introduced in Welsh by Ken Owens.

Even for the most experienced tourists, such as captain Warburton, it was an experience like no other.

“That was brilliant,” he said. 

“The day and the setting made it even more special. Off the rugby field, that was probably one of the best experiences I’ve had. All the players came out of there in awe really.

“I knew they weren’t going to smack me in the face! It was more of a welcome really; a sign of respect. You enjoy those moments — I’ve done a few of them over the years, but that was more special than the others.”

As for the singing, Warburton was delighted with the morning’s work.

“The choir delivered! We’ve put a lot of practice in behind closed doors and it’s been good, from a bonding point of view. We have a great laugh with it, but the guys have really bought into it. For the English, Scottish and Irish lads to learn Calon Lan is really impressive.

“Pretty much every evening here or when we were in the Vale and Ireland (in training camps), we’ve had choir practice. We’ve had at least 10-15 choir practices where we’ve all got together, so hopefully it paid off in there. If we win (the Test series), we’ll bring out the four on a single!”

For both Warburton and tour manager John Spencer, a history-maker in 1971 as a member of the only Lions party to win a series in New Zealand, the national welcome ceremony was as important as beating the All Blacks and particularly against a backdrop of criticism over the perceived prioritising of commercial considerations.

Head coach Warren Gatland implied on Saturday night, following an opening game played just three days after completing the arduous journey from London, that he was unhappy with the decision to make Friday’s travel day from Auckland to Whangarei, not a collective trip on the team bus but one in which his players were divided into a fleet of cars supplied by team sponsors Land Rover in order to make stops en route for visits to schools, hospitals and retirement homes.

“We’ve done community stuff yesterday where the guys have been sitting in cars for five hours, coming up and probably still recovering from the effects of that flight as well,” Gatland said, although the following day Spencer defended the spirit of the Lions’ engagement with the New Zealand public.

“On a Lions tour, we have our traditions that other tours don’t have and part of that is engaging with the community. That is really important to us and we did it a couple of days ago with schools and hospitals and some retirement villages.

“This is different because this is acknowledging the culture of a very important nation and the rugby will come back into full view but today (at Waitangi) is a day of respect.

“It can be tricky (to fit everything in) but we’ve organised our time; we know that being a Lion does not finish on the final whistle. This is part of expanding our game to use the moral aspect of our players to show respect and friendship.

“We want to do this. It’s not like any other tour. We’re trying to have as many of these welcomes and celebrations at the beginning of the tour as between the Test matches things get very busy. We want time at the beginning of the tour so we can show proper respect.”


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