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Dublin: 3 °C Wednesday 13 November, 2019

Letter from New Zealand: The world's steepest street and a rugby debut

The Kiwi people have been warm in their welcome of the Lions and their fellow tourists.

Murray Kinsella reports from Dunedin

THE STEEPEST STREET in the world? When in Dunedin…

About two-thirds of the way up, the legs start to feel the slow-burning pain and breathing gets out of control. Running turns to striding, and to walking for the last few of the 350 metres.

There is the excuse of having played a rugby match a couple of days before – more of which later – but this is a fine reminder that the fitness could do with a top-up.

Took on the world's steepest street in Dunedin. The street won. #NewZealand

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A bench awaits at the top of Baldwin Street after the climb up the 35% gradient hill, and the elderly man sitting there nods as he removes the earphones connected to a small portable radio, observing the sorry show of fatigue with apparent surprise.

We get chatting about the difficulty of reaching the top and it turns out that Dave Kernahan is a local hero, famous for running up and skipping down Baldwin Street 30 times a day.

Now 65-years-old, he was carrying this incredible feat up until about a year ago, when his knee started to give out. 30 times up and down Baldwin Street is the equivalent to half a marathon a day, while his record is 51 circuits.

Dave says he has raced and beaten former France captain Thierry Dusautoir on the hill as part of a promotional event, while ex-All Black Jonah Lomu pipped him by only a matter of metres. No one has clocked more climbs than him since he started running Baldwin Street around 16 years ago.

He is a fascinating man whose hands bear the scars of having worked in meat factories for much of his life, with a finger missing from each hand due to unfortunate accidents. Not that he’s one for complaining. Stoic is one way to describe him.

Like most people in New Zealand, he has rugby connections too, with his first cousin Barney McCone having been Richie McCaw’s first coach as a boy in the town of Kurow. Kernahan has met the former All Blacks captain and rates him as “a good joker.”

The sheer pride Dave – he has Irish roots close to Derry – has in Dunedin and its surrounds is impressive, and the chat eventually leads to him giving three of the travelling Irish media a tour up the nearby Mount Cargill, offering sublime views of Blueskin Bay, the Otago Peninsula and off out into the vast Pacific.

IMG_9074 Source: The42

Kernahan’s sheer friendliness is striking, but it’s the kind of warmth that has been a large part of the experience in New Zealand on this tour.

Back in Christchurch last weekend – it already seems like an age ago – this kind of hospitality led to The42 and the Irish Independent’s rugby reporters making their debuts for Sumner RFC, the home club of Crusaders coach Scott Robertson.

The brief taster into the life of club rugby in New Zealand was a treat, with the youth teams starting from 9.30am on Saturday, the affable Robertson himself in attendance on the morning of the Lions fixture to watch his kids playing, and the rest of the teams following throughout the day.

The new Irish duo were warmly welcomed by the Sumner Sharks social side for an afternoon kick-off, with gumshields, boots and gear all provided.

A rousing 27-20 win over the Keith club ensued and it was a deeply enjoyable 80 minutes, although the 70-metre linebreak created by the Irish pair didn’t get finished off unfortunately.

Still, running around a rugby pitch in New Zealand with some good blokes, the sun beginning to dip in the sky and the Avon-Heathcote Estuary in the background was an unforgettable experience.

Around the Lions tour itself, the Kiwi people and rugby folk have been welcoming, and their media is certainly not a reflection of them. The New Zealand rugby family want the Lions to show form in these warm-up games, they want a truly competitive Test series.

The Lions, and therefore the travelling media, moved on down to Dunedin on Sunday and the Highlanders await for what should be a cracking game under the roof in the Forsyth Barr Stadium on Tuesday.

The Forsyth Barr stadium in Dunedin during the Captains Run Conditions will be perfect in Dunedin. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

In a city with a population of around 120,000 – lots of them students – the stadium tends to get pretty wild and the Highlanders will put on a proud performance on the big occasion.

There are very strong Scottish roots in this part of New Zealand – Dunedin was planned based on Edinburgh – and the Highlanders will bring a slightly different pre-match challenge than the hakas we have seen from the Blues and Crusaders.

“We’ve got something a little bit different I suppose, we’re all excited about it,” says Highlanders captain Luke Whitelock. ”We’re trying to reflect what we’re about down here. I guess you’ll see that come Tuesday.”

It will be Scottish-themed, but beyond that the Highlanders haven’t been saying too much.

So what are they about down here?

“We’re around our values, just trying to be good buggers and help each other out, just a sort of tight family group, and work together as a team.”

So far, the evidence suggests that the folk around here are good people indeed.

- This article was updated at 4.35pm to remove reference to the ‘House of Pain’.

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Murray Kinsella

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