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Lions Tour – Arrival in Auckland

28th May 2005 By Munster Rugby

Lions Tour – Arrival in Auckland

Donncha O’Callaghan, with his thick brush of black hair, looked young and seriously Irish. There was the odd mullet, red eyes, messy hair.

It was Jonny who got the biggest roar. The crowd had been waiting outside Gate 10 at Auckland Airport for hours, regularly whipped into shrieks of “Lions, Lions, Lions” by the team’s official TV crew.

But when their star appeared, with his brown-blond hair, glowing skin and air of innocence, they went into a frenzy.

By then the atmosphere was crackling. The 75-strong Lions party – which almost equalled the 100 or so waiting supporters – is the biggest to tour anywhere in the world. Put together by master planner and head coach Sir Clive Woodward, it is a machine. A huge, aggressive, winning machine. And this was its first flex of muscle.

They filed through an arch of black-and-red balloons, in their red, blue and white tracksuits, led by captain Brian O’Driscoll and Woodward himself. As well as the 100 or so fans, there were almost as many journalists and many more police and airport staff than were strictly needed.

As you’d expect after a direct flight from Heathrow – even in lie-flat business-class beds – the Lions looked slightly tousled, dazed even. But Woodward, who circled the crowd first, was obviously enjoying himself, smiling widely and fairly dancing on his feet as he shook hands and spoke to fans.

The younger players looked tired. Apart from two women, Lions team manager Louise Ramsay and media liaison Louisa Cheetham, the machine was male – and mostly big bruisers. Many of the younger players hung at the back, rather than moving forward to sign the shirts and balls thrust over the cordon, until they were called by name.

Donncha O’Callaghan, with his thick brush of black hair, looked young and seriously Irish. There was the odd mullet, red eyes, messy hair.

Someone managed to grab a bag of duty free. Jonny Wilkinson had four paperbacks in a plastic bag (one called No Second Chance by Harlan Coben) – and a minder to take them.

The minder guarded the books as he signed balls for boys with embroidered red roses on their shirts. As with anything to do with Woodward, the planning was meticulous. The players’ kit was already loaded for the trip to the Hilton hotel on Princes Wharf, where the team are staying.

Unusually for sports teams, all players will have single rooms, with kingsize beds. Woodward believes grown men shouldn’t have to share.

The players had only five minutes maximum to sign autographs for the cordoned-off crowd, before escaping. A pregnant woman pleaded with Wilkinson to sign her shirt, but he knew the drill and turned away from her cries of “Please, please Jonny”.

The Lions sat there on the buses, sucking on water bottles, staring blankly down at a pack of TV cameras, reporters and photographers that is probably small by European standards.

Most were silent, unsmiling. Only one pair, joking, seemed to be having a good time.

by Carroll du Chateau – New Zealand Herald.


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