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Letter from New Zealand: Lions easing happily into life on tour

Sean O’Brien has taken on the all-important role of fines master.

Murray Kinsella reports from Whangārei

THE SUN WAS a nice surprise on our first two days in New Zealand, but the journey north to Whangārei was a little more like what we’d been told to expect.

Beautiful scenery and rain of a biblical nature.

It has been pouring relentlessly for the entirety of Friday and there is no let-up forecast for the Lions’ tour opener against the New Zealand Provincial Barbarians at Toll Stadium tomorrow.

Toll Stadium  during the kicking practice Toll Stadium, where the Lions' first game takes place tomorrow. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

The neat venue on Okara Drive is sold out for the eagerly-anticipated first outing for Warren Gatland’s men, and 22,000 locals and Lions-supporting visitors will huddle in to see what should be a comfortable victory for the tourists.

The town of Whangārei had to fight hard to secure a Lions fixture and they’ve clearly been putting in the hard work ever since, with the stadium in pristine condition and the surrounding area well set for the first of the Lions camper vans and buses.

While the weather could have put a dampener on things for the Lions after two days in Auckland, they have been happily adapting to life on tour and feel they are already coming together well as a squad.

Friday involved the squad splitting into groups of three players and one member of management to travel from Auckland to Whangārei in a fleet of their sponsored Land Rovers.

Each small group visited a school, retirement village or hospital along the way, as well as collecting the best New Zealand souvenir they could find.

Those players not involved in the matchday 23 tomorrow also had to spend time meeting locals at any location of their choice, as well as finding the best pie in New Zealand – with the ever-popular bagman Patrick ‘Rala’ O’Reilly acting as the judge when everyone had arrived at the team hotel in Whangārei.

All of the above goes into deciding who the best tourist in the Lions’ squad is. A huge honour, of course.

Gatland is keen to ensure his players get opportunities to have some fun on this tour and days such as today are important to that, as are the various committees.

Paddy Rala O'Reilly during the training Rala is out of retirement and back in the mix. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

One of the most coveted positions on these tours is that of fines master, the person designated to dish out punishments to team-mates for being late, making mistakes, telling bad jokes and anything else they see fit.

Sean O’Brien has taken on the role with pride and his fines notebook has rarely left his side since the Lions arrived in New Zealand on Wednesday.

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Meanwhile, James Haskell and Liam Williams have taken responsibility for the Lions’ music, although the Englishman admits that he “almost caused a riot” with his unpopular choices on the team bus.

Haskell is already the joker in the pack, as Gatland had hoped when calling him in to replace Billy Vunipola, but 24-year-old England prop Kyle Sinckler has also emerged as a strong contender.

He has been testing ear drums at the Lions’ choir practice and apparently fell through the table tennis table when a punishment was coming in his direction after losing a game. The affable and entertaining Harlequins man is already a popular figure within the touring party.

Things get a little more serious tomorrow, of course, with the rugby finally kicking off. New Zealanders have been waiting for this for a long time. 12 years to be exact, and the anticipation will only grow and grow as the Tests get closer.

New Zealand’s obsession with rugby is well-known. Even on the flight over with Air New Zealand that was underlined, with their in-flight entertainment including a dedicated ‘rugby’ category.

The 2015 World Cup final, documentaries about the 2011 World Cup success, the Richie McCaw documentary, and more. Then there were slots for the Lions’ 2017 tour games, empty for now but with a promise that they would be available in late June.

Jonathan Sexton during the kicking practice Johnny Sexton lines up a kick at Toll Stadium today. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

The expectation in New Zealand is that the All Blacks will have too much for the Lions in the Test series, though there does appear to be some respect for the quality of the squad Gatland has brought.

The sheer difficulty of their task is obvious, but they have made a happy start to the tour in the first three days at least. There were already Lions fans arriving into Auckland from Wednesday, although their numbers will truly grow before the Test series.

The sunny weather made for a beautiful couple of days finding bearings in Auckland, before the show hit the road towards a wet Whangārei.

The Lions fans who have shifted north will expect a comprehensive win for Gatland’s men. The Barbarians squad includes exciting talent like Oli Jager, Sevu Reece, Sam Vaka and Luteru Laulala, but there are players coming out of club rugby for the game too.

With their array of Test stars, and even with the weather serving as something of an equaliser, the Lions should have too much quality and they should be able to add to the sense of a happy beginning to this tour of New Zealand.

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About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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