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Letter from New Zealand: Māori heartland, Father's Day and the red army

Murray Kinsella checks in after moving from Rotorua to Hamilton ahead of the Chiefs game.

Murray Kinsella reports from Hamilton

ALL PRESS CONFERENCES should be like the Chiefs’ press conference to announce their team to face the Lions tomorrow.

It was literally all-singing and all-dancing from the Super Rugby outfit as a group from the local Tai Wananga school welcomed the media to the Chiefs’ training base in Hamilton with a lovely waiata, a Māori song.

A great welcome to the @chiefsrugby press conference! #Waiata #TaiWananga

A post shared by Murray Kinsella (@murray_kinsella) on

From there, the self-deprecating and witty James McOnie from The Crowd Goes Wild show extended the welcome with something of a stand-up comedy gig before he introduced Chiefs boss Dave Rennie and the “guest selector” for this game.

10-year-old Chiefs fan Sam Webb had the honour of reading out the Chiefs team that will provide a ferocious challenge to the Lions tomorrow, and it was hard not to smile at the charm offensive in Hamilton.

The Chiefs have had some bad off-the-field publicity in recent times, but their welcome to those who had just arrived from Rotorua and elsewhere was kindly appreciated.

McOnie joked that Hamilton is a city where there’s very little to do, but the fans who have arrived in to warm up for this weekend’s first Test in Auckland appear to have been enjoying getting a taste for the local brews.

There are notably more Lions supporters with each passing day on this tour and they made their presence felt down in Rotorua last weekend as Warren Gatland’s side took the Māori All Blacks apart.

The Chiefs’ welcome in Hamilton did not include a haka – McOnie pointing out that the haka fatigue must surely be growing – but the haka we saw from the Māori All Blacks was truly spectacular, with smoke from the pre-match fireworks sitting over them as Hika Elliot and Ash Dixon led an astoundingly powerful challenge to the Lions.

The Maori All Blacks perform the Haka Source: Photosport/Andrew Cornaga/INPHO

Immediately after, however, the Lions fans nestled onto the grass banks of the homely Rotorua International Stadium found their voice and broke into the first of many, many ‘Lions, Lions, Lions’ chants.

While the Lions’ numbers have been boosted outside the squad, Warren Gatland’s group have also increased in number with the controversial addition of six Welsh and Scottish players.

It remains a major talking point here and at home, but the Lions have already moved on and the new guys are fitting right into a squad whose spirit is very high – despite reports of its demise in the New Zealand Herald.

“The boys have been fully embroiled straight away,” says James Haskell. “A couple of them had to roll the dice [for fines] and one of them is wearing a suit for the next three days!

“It’s not a get to know you, ‘Hi, my name’s James Haskell, my favourite colour is red and I play for Wasps.’ You’ve got to get straight in, you’ve got to learn the calls, you’ve got to get right in the mix and that’s the way you do it.”

Haskell is the real joker in the pack and his bromance with Sean O’Brien has been bringing lots of laughs for the Lions squad and those following their relationship on social media.

“I’ve been sharing a room with Sean all tour,” says Haskell with a smile. “We’ve bonded to say the least.”

Dan Cole and Haskell have taken control of presenting the Fact of the Day to the Lions squad, with the Leicester prop’s dry delivery winning him many fans on the team bus but O’Brien’s efforts at jokes have been poorly received, at least according to Haskell.

British and Irish Lions fans during the Haka Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

In among the high jinks, there were a few teary moments for some of the players yesterday as the Lions management marked Father’s Day in a rather classy manner.

The backroom staff secretly arranged for the players’ wives and partners to record videos of their kids expressing their love to their dads over in New Zealand, and the clips were played in the team room as a surprise.

With quite a few players away from their kids for the first extended period, Ireland’s Peter O’Mahony and Johnny Sexton among them, there have been some tough days and the Lions’ nice idea of getting the videos sent over went down very well.

For those players involved tomorrow against the Chiefs – most of them now accepting that their first Test chances are gone – they will have to steel their emotions for what could be a difficult fixture.

The Lions coaching staff have stressed the importance of preparing tomorrow’s team as best possible, but it is only natural that everything on the outside is already looking towards Eden Park on Saturday.

Gatland’s side will face another haka tomorrow, with the Chiefs being so proudly driven by their connections to the Māori community.

Source: The42/YouTube

Back in Rotorua, we saw the world’s biggest haka pulled off on the main green in the city, one of the highlights of what were some very enjoyable days in the Māori heartland of New Zealand. A visit to Lake Taupo, a true gem, was restorative.

Up the road to Hamilton on Sunday, the presence of the growing red army was notable against and this whole beast will be shipping on up to Auckland on Tuesday night and Wednesday morning as the tour continues to build to what should be a fascinating series opener.

Waikato boy Gatland is back on home soil in Hamilton and he had a few words of congratulations for local hero Stephen Donald, who rather perfectly got engaged out on his fishing boat.

The affable Chiefs out-half, who starts at 10 against the Lions, famously came off the Waikato river and a fishing trip to kick a penalty in the 2011 World Cup final for the All Blacks and he will always be a legend here thanks to that feat.

After a few words with the man himself on Sunday, we wandered out to take in the remarkably laidback Chiefs on the training pitch and there was Donald working hard, fishing hat firmly planted on his head.

And good old Beaver will be looking to help the Chiefs reel in a pretty big prize tomorrow night in front of what should be a fervent Hamilton crowd.

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