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Oval Balls in the Land of the Long White Cloud
Saturday, 25 June 2005
THE NIGHT IT RAINED ON THE LIONS' PARADE
I rather foolishly agreed to allow Country FM in Dublin to ring me at the normal time that I do a brief weekend preview for them every Friday.

5:30pm on a Friday evening in Ireland is 4:30am on a Saturday morning here. What was I thinking?

And more importantly, what happened to my five-minute nap? After being cut off midway through my first answer on air, somehow I manage to sound someway coherent when they ring back, halfway through a piece where the presenter is reading out items from a 1950s US home economic book. Believe me, it's funny - or as funny as you can get when you've just been woken up at 4:30 on a Saturday morning.

The breakfast room at the Windsor is packed to overflowing as I share a small table with two families from near Cape Farewell as the northern tip of South Island.

It took them four hours to drive here, and they can't believe how Christchurch has been invaded by rugby tourists. "So how do you join the Barmy Army?" they ask.

A couple from Merthyr Tydfil in south Wales have been down with most of the afore-mentioned in Queenstown all week.

Lots of fans from the UK are finding it easier to stay there for the three weeks of the Test series, flying north for each match, than to find accommodation in the three Test cities.

The day of the biggest match Christchurch has ever seen is cool, crisp, but as always, sunny, and as I type this, a tram has passed by containing a full brass band - it's going to be a day never to forget, but not all for the right reasons.

Around lunchtime, for the first time this week, the heavens open - and they stay open.

That doesn't diminish the atmosphere though, as the big matchday entertainment around Cathedral Square picks up.

There are live bands on stage, and two big screens ready for those who can't make it to the game. A walk-through game of chess with gigantic pieces gets a major look-in from people, as does a drive-around by a Queen lookalike. The monarch, not the band.

There are quite a few lions parading around the square too, and the temporary merchandise shop organised by both the Lions and NZRFU is full to brimming. Even Starbucks isn't a place to settle and relax anymore.

Everywhere you go, there are groups of native New Zealanders doing the Haka to entertain passers-by, but as the day wears on, it gets wetter and wetter and wetter.

The Jade Stadium only holds around 40,000, but is still a huge impressive sight.

Finally cross paths with Ger Lawton, who reports - like most sane campervanners I've spoken to this weekend - that it gets incredibly cold at night in his vehicle. Maybe I'm not so jealous of their life on the road anymore.

Forget all those preconceived images you may have of commentators broadcasting away in a nice warm booth, with enough beverages on tap to float the Queen Mary.

My position tonight is at the end of a row of pressmen, in the crowd, with two long long cables worming below the seats to provide me power. I've got a small flip-top table which keeps threatening to spill all my gear onto the row in front of me, and to compound things, there are gales blowing up from the Antarctic, I'm wearing four layers, gloves, a beanie hat kept on by a Lions cap, two pairs of socks and I'm still cold.

The phoneline we have isn't strong enough to allow a clear ISDN line to Dublin, so we have to use a reportophone as back-up. The media centre ridiculously is in the stand opposite the press box, so everybody has to fight their way through 35,000 fans both before and after the game.

It all means far too much hassle for an occasion you'd much rather be able to just fully sit back and enjoy, but as John Motson wrote in his book on how he lived through the last football season, he covers about 100 games a season, and it's a rare day when everything goes totally right.

Mustn't grumble though - I could have been in the open section of the stands, wondering just why I travelled 12,000 miles to be rained on for eighty minutes while watching my team play hopeless rugby. Or I could be positioned on the sideline like Radio Sport's touchline reporter, who constntly mentions in my earpiece that he's getting totally soaked, and he's never seen a night's rain like it. Neither have I as it happens.

As the first-half develops, and O'Driscoll, Hill and O'Connell are nobbled, the rain turns to sleet, then hail, and by the end, it will be snowing.

The Lions play terribly and lose, though most Lions fans stick it out to the bitter end.

Anyone wearing a Lions shirt or jacket for the rest of the night has to put up with playful catcalls from local natives of "Lions, Lions!" or "Why didn't you stay at home!" or "It's the Pyjarmy Army!".

When I'm heading home at 2am, there's still a queue of around 200 - mainly Lions fans - trying to enter one of Christchurch's most popular bars, the Holy Grail.

The Lions' chances of finding their grail have suddenly fallen from slim to none.

Posted by akilduff at 12:01 AM EDT
Friday, 24 June 2005
THE ALL-BLACK EMPIRE STRIKES BACK
When it comes down to it, are all our jobs the same?

I only ask this because there are plenty of times I meet people at games or in the office or in studio, and what they have to say is so interesting, I do a story on them.

So, all you school teachers out there, everytime you're talking to someone in the street, are you really sussing them out to see if they'll go in front of your class and tlk about their job, or their experiences, or where they're from, and so on? I remember a whole line-up of people who ended up addressing us when I was in school, most notably the Bomber Liston, and the then Clare hurling goalkeeper Eoghan Corry.

At The Bog bar, a teacher friend-of-a-friend, Nicola, begged me and a few of the Cork contingent to come into her class this morning and field questions on Ireland... apparently there was a 24-pack in it for us, which I have to say sounds like an interesting school. Sadly, none of us were brave enough to enter a room of inquiring 10-year-olds, though if I'm asked again I might just give in.

It was a big morning for primary schools in the Christchurch/Canterbury area. Today is Blackout Banner Day - where all the schools and businesses in the entire region are encouraged to put out black flags, banners and bunting to combat the growing sea of red that's emerging in the South Island's capital.

St Alban's Catholic School are the winners, entitled themselves to lots of sports gear and those all-important bragging rights.

A 7am start for me today as I have to nip across town to the Legends bar, from where TV New Zealand's breakfast show is broadcasting live.

After some uncannily accurate directions from a friendly checkout girl - "Cross the road at the Grumpy Mole, turn right at the Loaded Hog, and a quick left by Dick Smith's and you're there" - the show is in full swing, anchored by NZ's answer to Anne Diamond, Kay Gregory.

"I am in enemy territory totally here, Lions supporters everywhere. The atmosphere is so good, everybody wants to have a great holiday, and I'm hoping Auckland is going to enjoy it just as much when the Lions visit here in a few weeks," Kay says.

A couple of kilt-clad Scots fans impress the TV crew so much, they decide to follow the Caledonian boys around for the rest of the tour.

Notably, nealy all the Lions fans I speak to this morning belive the tourists WILL win.

The official match programmes are on sale in the shops here, and a quick visit to Canterbury Mags on the way back to Cathedral Square yields another interview, as it transpires the shopkeeper, Grant, was there the day Munster beat the All-Blacks in 1978.

The play based on that fateful day, Alone It Stands, has been touring New Zealand lately, and as Grant still has his match ticket and programme, decided to get them signed by the cast... except both valuabl documents have ben mislaid. For his sake, I hope he finds them again!

Across the Square, there's a 10am breakfast meeting with All-Blacks coach Graham Henry and skipper Tama Umaga.

"Tell Clive I'm really under pressure," quips the former Lions coach, as he admits defeat in the 2001 tour to Australia came about because "I wasn't touchy-feely enough with the players." That's one dressing-room we'd all be curious to be flies on the wall of....

Niall from Naas introduces himself at the Windsor Hotel, and out of his group, is the lucky one. A lot more of his friends have seen the final leg of their flight from Bangkok delayed by a day - they won't arrive in New Zealand until four hours before kick-off... if they're lucky.

Then comes an afternoon tour with Brent Pope, who has been entertaining us as a well-briefed TV pundit for almost 15 years now.

Forn the past few summers, Brent has been running a rugby academy outside Christchurch for 25 of the most-talented teenage players from across Ireland.

When they hear both myself and Oisin are from the general Youghal area, "Stormin' Norman" gets a namecheck from a couple of players from Bandon. There's a lad here too from Sligo as Popey bids to unearth talent that would otherwise be lost to Irish rugby.

That Conor McPhillips was a member of this academy, and has now gone on to be a full Ireland international shows that Brent has already done his job to perfection.

But he's not one to rest on his laurels. For the entire journey back into the city, the former St Mary's coach starts fizzing around ideas like champagne.

His big ambition is to introduce a sports academy to Ireland along the lines of one running here, where around a dozen promising athletes from individual sports, between the ages of 17 and 21, receive a healthy donation to help them compete on the world stage. Nothing ostentatious, just a foot-up and a helping hand.

As we all know, funding for Irish athletes is abysmal - the Irish system simply does not work, and when our under-funded hopefuls come back battered from Olympic Games and other events to widespread criticism, it makes my blood boil. Brent feels the same way - and he's got the connections to do something about it. He'll be getting plenty of publicity from me, that's for sure.

When you go somewhere abroad for the first time, you always notice something amazing that you just wish was the case in Ireland.

We passed one piece of parkland that had twenty rugby pitches, a couple of tennis courts, and about a dozen netball courts - all in the open air, no barriers or security, and yet, none of the netting or padding or facilities in general had been vandalised... no-one would think of doing it, you see.

When Brent remarks how Christchurch has 12 Olympic-size swimming pools - Ireland only has one - and how there's never really been an obesity or binge-drinking problem in New Zealand, you just realise how much being a go-getting nation of outdoor people really benefits. Over here, if they're short a sporting facility, they build it, no questions asked.

A different branch of Starbucks becomes my office today, and it's one favoured by the Irish members of the travelling party, as Ronan O'Gara, Paul O'Connell and Eddie O'Sullivan all pop in at different times to sit in a corner and relax. Oh, and they serve better mocha too.

When I nab Eddie at the 6:00 eve-of-match Lions briefing, he's full of enthusiasm for this beautiful friendly city, where the atmosphere has by this stage gone far beyond what you'd see on an All-Ireland weekend.

Is there a tingle of excitement? "Yes, there is. We've been here a few weeks now, but it's only in the last few days that we've seen that the build-up has eally gathered momentum. Huge numbers, lots of Lions supporters around, and that adds to the whole occasion. But it also adds a little bit more pressure, as a lot of people have come a long way looking for something to celebrate. It's all part of the razzmatazz, but we have to now focus on what happens for eighty minutes on the pitch - all the other stuff is peripheral - and we have to give the performance of our lives tomorrow night."

Sir Clive is his usual laid-back self, not particularly concerned with th weather that awaits, although the excitement of the huge occasion's getting to him maybe a litle bit too much: "I was walking around with my wife Ann earlier, and the juices were definitely flowing. Better not let her hear that, though!"

The press conference rounds off at Christchurch Town Hall around 7:00, with comedian Al Murray, the pub landlord, going out on stage at eight.

By this stage, I'm filing as many reports and interviews back to Ireland as I can - but 8pm in New Zealand is a dangerous time to on a computer.

That's 9am back home, and when all my friends are coming online at work. After dozens of emails bouncing back and forth - and somehow finishing all my work, which includes a chat with Real Radio in Wales - I struggle back to the hotel at 10 to change for the biggest night of anticipation and excitement Christchurch has ever seen.

But I make the big mistake of attempting a five-minute nap, and as soon as the head hits the pillow, zzzzzzzzzzzz...

Posted by akilduff at 12:01 AM EDT
Thursday, 23 June 2005
IMOKILLY OLD-BOY HITS THE FRONT PAGE
A day-off from training and media activity for both the Lions and the All Blacks should have meant a quiet day for me too, but as it turned out, no chance of any rest for the wicked.

So there I am Thursday morning, having my full Kiwi breakfast (where the grilled tomatoes are joined by grilled kiwifriut), chatting with the Lions fan who was checking into the Windsor Hotel the same time as me yesterday, when a familiar face beams out at me from the morning newspaper.

A photo appears alongside an interview with this same person, a Lions fan, who is touring New Zealand in a campervan with a few friends.

"They had brought enough shirts so they would not smell," reports Mike Crean in The Press, which surely is more information than anyone needs, though a handy reminder that I'll actually have to iron mine today, as I just slung a whole heap of clothes in my bag before leaving Dublin.

"We had some of the biggest bags you ever saw come into this country," says this fan, who continues: "We also get a laundromat whenever we can."

And the name of this supporter, who loves his whites whiter than white? Ger Lawton, former sports editor of the Imokilly People!

I'm duty-bound by my editor to meet up with Ger anyway on this trip, so I'll be hearing of his adventures later tonight I'm sure.

Martin from Coventry, who's at the breakfast table next to mine, isn't part of any official tour party, and saved quite a lot of money by going the independent route.

However, as he's having to buy his tickets "unofficially", he is only guaranteed to be at the First Test, thanks to an act of charity from a former clubmate of his at Coventry RFC, who despite selling the tickets on the auction website Ebay, decided to accept Martin's losing bid anyway.

I reckon he'll be fortunate if he can get in for anything less than ?500 for the last two Tests - that's if he can get in at all.

Local station Classic Hits 97FM is playing on the radio, and after telling us of the latest PR disaster for the Lions - they're pulling their players out of a parade in Manawatu next week, and the locals are furious - they break news of much more significance.

"We'll probably have snow for the Test Match on Saturday, folks."

As Christchurch is the final stop before Antarctic explorers head south, maybe that's no surprise.

When you're lounging around in your sun-drenched beer gardens on Saturday morning wishing you were down here with us, we'll be wishing we were up there with you.

Actually, I think I wish I was travelling around in a campervan down here, seeing a bit of the country, and not having to do all this work!

Paddy Power rang me last night to ask if I could do a couple of preview packages for their in-store and internet radio services - essentially these would be two-minute reports detailing the latest news from New Zealand, including a few clips of the key men.

Now, while this work sounds simple and straightforward, getting the audio to Ireland is more of a problem.

The Windsor Hotel's internet computer has broken down, meaning I'll have to rush to one of the nearby hotels to send the reports via WiFi.

After skipping around a few establishments, it emerges that there's a branch of the Starbucks coffee emporium in Cathedral Square which acts a WiFi hotspot, where you can sit down, and use the internet to your heart's content.

But, says the girl behind the counter at Starbucks, that's only if you're a customer of New Zealand Telecom... and it's very expensive...

So, after some humming and hawing, I decide to bite the bullet, discovering that it only costs about two euros to sign up anyway, and for the duration of the Lions tour, WiFi access is free! Brilliant!

Well, brilliant apart from being on the phone an hour to register, and constantly being transferred across to a help desk where everybody's at lunch... but isn't that how all call centres work these days?

By the time all the pieces are sent, not just to Paddy Power, but also to the various radio stations in Ireland and the UK taking INN's coverage of the Lions Tour, into Starbucks walks another member of the East Cork/West Waterford mafia, and he looks as if jet-lag's caught up with him the same way it's doing with me.

It's Oisin Langan's first day here, and he's been out speaking to some Lions fans in Cathedral Square for the local Dublin station he now works for.

He's also following the tour by campervan - it's obviously the way to travel this year!

Cathedral Square is right in the heart of the city, and it's very much Rugby Central for the next few days.

Along with a huge cut-out of a New Zealand player doing the Haka, there's also a temporary rugby shop right in the middle of the square, alongside a screen demonstrating what you can pick up from the referee's microphone during games.

Three fine Welsh lasses pass by, declaring they're off to Warners Hotel to find some Lions players. You're going the wrong way girls, but still...

One of the more permanent elements of the square is Christchurch Cathedral itself, which outside has a huge banner depicting Daniel.

After all, he knew how to deal with Lions....

One thing is earning my ire though. This side was always known as the Lions. Just the Lions. Then, on the last New Zealand tour, NZTV dubbd the side the "British Isles". ITV, who had won the rights for the first time off the BBC, called them the British Lions. Irish TV retaliated, and dubbed them the British and Irish Lions. Can't we just get back to basics?

Such was the impact of the last England cricket tour here, where the large numbers of travelling fans were dubbed "the Barmy Army", that the name has stuck. If you're Irish though, you don't really want to be identified with English cricket.

After a quick visit to the tiny Christchurch studios of Radio New Zealand for a link-up with London ("Are you with the Barmy Army?" asks Elina, one of the two journalists on call there tonight), I then spend a few hours in the bog.

That's The Bog bar on Cashel Street, one of a plethora of pubs brimming to overflowing tonight. Despite the cold night, most people are enjoying the cool air of the beer garden, including a large group of fans over from Cork City.

It really doesn't matter where you go, you'll always find ex-pats from the Rebel County, won't you!

Posted by akilduff at 12:01 AM EDT
Wednesday, 22 June 2005
A KIWI TOWN WITH ORCHARD COUNTY CONNECTIONS
"Welcome... to New Zealand" is the dramatic announcement from the captain on Qantas flight 45 as we touch down in Christchurch.

It's a city about half the size of Cork, with the Pacific to the east, the Alps to the west, and the dramatic vision of Mt Cavendish to the south. There suely could be no more picturesque place on earth.

Despite the sunshine, it's also winter here, so it's cold, very cold.

"You'd better bring some heavy clothes when you come down here," warned the owner of my first port of call a few weeks ago, and by the time I reach the Windsor Hotel, I know he's not exaggerating.

The name of the establishment suggests what sort of a place Christchurch is. It's got tons of Olde Worlde charm, and like some parts of Canada, the buildings, layout and street names would almost fool you into thinking you were somewhere in Middle England.

There's some Irish influence too though. I'm staying on Armagh Street, and the Town Hall which houses this evening's Lions team press conference is situated on Kilmore Street. Other streetnames of note are Cashel St, Tuam St, Durham St, Manchester St, Colombo St, Antiqua St and Montreal St.

As the city's streets are in a grid pattern, just like in North America, the best way of describing where to find somewhere is to mention an intersection, so I'm staying on the corner of Armagh and Montreal. Something tells me I'll never be saying that again after I leave this picturesque Pacific city.

In the meantime, the Lions side to play in the opening Test on Saturday is named - eight Englishmen start, despite their poor season in both the Six Nations and Europe.

Josh Lewsey is bumped to the wing to facilitate Jason Robinson at full-back, Jonny Wilkinson will somehow partner Brian O'Driscoll in the middle and has kicking duties ahead of Stephen Jones, while 36-year-old Neil Back will feature in the half-back line. Gavin Henson doesn't feature at all.

A quick reccie beforehand reveals that there are no facilities whatsoever at the Town Hall to file reports and interviews in "quality" - i.e. send them back to Ireland on a clear line - so I duck next door to the Crowne Plaza Hotel to check their facilities.

And there in the lobby are the entire Lions squad, coach Clive Woodward, PR boss Alastair Campbell and players-turned-pundits Jeremy Guscott, Jason Leonard and Gareth Chilcott.

This is obviously the place to be, and even better, they have WiFi, the form of wireless internet that will allow me file my material back to Ireland in quality.

And more familiar faces are to be seen at the Lions team announcement, none more so than Andrew Titheridge, who has been covering rugby for UK independent radio for 25 years, and who congratulated me for missing the Lions reserves beating Southland 30-19 in Invercargill. "It was like bloody Chernobyl down there mate!" quips Tithers that's the less obscene version of his nickname by the way...

The press conference is a dream, and though only Sky Sports, BBC Radio and TalkSport are allowed interview Clive Woodward on a one-to-one basis - as they're UK rights-holders - the next thing I'm about to say should be written in huge capital letters and sent to every GAA manager and county board in the country.

Each of the 22 squad members involved in Saturday's First Test are available for interview for one hour.

Now, you may say to that "so what?", but in an age where some GAA players are being wrapped up in cotton wool and kept away from the media, and others are just too arrogant to get off their high-horses and actually treat those of us in the press as ordinay human beings, perhaps the most important 22 people in Northern Hemisphere sport this week are only delighted to answer any question the world wants answered.

Of the people I manage to corner, Shane Byrne's delighted to be selected for the starting fifteen, demoting Mrs Thompson's son to the bench, Shane Horgan's disappointed not to be starting though he's still thanking his lucky stars he didn't end up like the immensely-talented Gavin Henson, and skipper Brian O'Driscoll's reminding the players that didn't make it this time that there are still two big games to go after this one.

After asking Jason Robinson about the criticism the Lions performances are getting, he tells me they're rather pleased about it, as it's making them more determined to prove everyone wrong, and it's helping the squad knit together.

Paul O'Connell's waiting for some proper scrums to develop, Josh Lewsey can't wait for his biggest match since the World Cup Final, and Richard Hill's breath has been taken away by the talent he'll be lining out alongside on Saturday.

And you know what, surely a more down-to-earth bunch of lads you couldn't expect to meet.

Bring on Saturday!

Posted by akilduff at 12:01 AM EDT
Tuesday, 21 June 2005
THE LONG ROAD TO THE LAND OF THE LONG WHITE CLOUD
So, away we go.

Never having been outside these islands until six years ago, off I hop to New Zealand for the Lions Tour.

As my taxi driver said this morning, I couldn't go much further.

Flying into London was like being right in the middle of the opening credits for Match of the Day, as our pilot swooped over the new Wembley, Stamford Bridge, Craven Cottage and even Brentford's Griffin Park.

I'm not sure if this is part of some UK tourism deal with Aer Lingus, as they also flew low directly over the London Eye, Houses of Parliament and Buckingham Palace.

Two arduous flights await, both ten hours, one after the other - first London-Bangkok, then Bangkok-Sydney, and if that weren't enough, how's about a nice three-hour haul from Sydney to Christchurch.

With all the time zones being crossed, the longest day of the year becomes my shortest.

All three flights have virtually the same passenger list, so by the end, virtually everybody's on first name terms. That's the good news.

The bad news is that by the end, everybody's also on first-name terms with the entire cast of Will Smith chick-flick Hitch, which must have played at least six times on the three different flights.

I can also tell you that Meet The Fockers is hilariously funny (but you probably already knew that), Assault on Precinct 13 is surprisingly good, The Ring 2 is unsurprisingly bad, and The Aquatic Life with Steve Zissou is... ummm... quirky.

Despite the fact that the flights were mainly manned by English fans, the conscensus from the travelling hordes heading down under is that there any too many Englishmen on the squad.

"We have an urgent message for Mrs Thompson," starts a personal message over the tannoy on the flight from Sydney.

"Yeah, her son's been dropped!" comes the swift reply from the England fan sitting alongside me.

But all he can do, like me, when we're flying directly west-to-east across New Zealand towards Christchurch is gasp at the beauty of the Southern Alps.

For half an hour, it's like flying over a postcard.

Posted by akilduff at 12:01 AM EDT
Updated: Wednesday, 29 June 2005 12:41 AM EDT

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