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Letter from New Zealand: A powerful Māori welcome and Henshaw's Gaeilge

Warren Gatland’s squad were officially welcomed to New Zealand on Sunday.

Murray Kinsella reports from Auckland

YOU CAN NEVER be sure where a rugby tour is going to lead you, and hearing Robbie Henshaw deliver a speech as Gaeilge in a Māori meeting house, before leading a group of Englishmen, Welshmen, Scotsmen and Irishmen through a rendition of The Fields of Athenry was definitely a new one for us.

The British and Irish Lions accept the Maori challenge Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

On a stunning Sunday morning, the Lions received their official welcome to New Zealand at the historic Waitangi Treaty Grounds – the ‘Birthplace of the Nation’ where Māori chiefs and the British Crown signed the Treaty of Waitangi in 1840.

Rain had hammered down only 24 hours previously in the nearby Whangarei, eventually subsiding in time for the Lions’ 13-7 win over the New Zealand Provincial Barbarians, but any thoughts of winter were banished in the warmth of the Waitangi sun.

While the breaking news from London put everything into perspective, the welcoming ceremony was powerful.

It would be easy to be cynical about an event like this one, particularly as it added more travelling to the Lions’ already-busy schedule, but it was impossible not to be impressed by the traditional pōwhiri.

Warren Gatland, tour manager John Spencer and Sam Warburton led the Lions squad and backroom staff up the vast lawn looking out on the beautiful Bay of Islands, as they faced three challenges on their way to the Te Whare Runanga meeting house.

Source: Murray Kinsella/YouTube

With war cries, body art, the sound of conch shells being blown and a 400-strong crew of Māori making up the welcoming party, there were stunning scenes throughout.

Challenges faced and taonga offerings accepted by the Lions, proceedings moved inside the carved wooden meeting house, where there were speeches from Spencer and the Māori leaders.

The Lions had been training for their response since first assembling as a squad, with Gatland having insisted that his players keep on top of their choir practice in recent weeks in order to perfect their four touring songs.

First, they sang Highland Cathedral to recognise their Scottish influence, before we had the strange sight of the entire 41-man squad – including Ireland internationals like Peter O’Mahony – singing Jerusalem, a song deeply associated with England.

The British and Irish Lions inside the Marae The Lions sing in Te Whare Runanga. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

Henshaw then stepped up to deliver a short speech in Irish.

Dia duit gach duine,” said the Leinster centre.“Is mise Roibard agus tá mé i mo chónaí i Iarmhí in Eireann. Tá mé anseo inniú ag caint as gaeilge ar son foireann Lions agus ar son foireann na hÉireann.

Ba mhaith liom a rá gur tír álainn agus tír ar fheabhas i Nua-Shéalainn. Tá áthas an domhain orainn a bheith anseo inniu. Go raibh mile math agat, go raibh mile maith agat.”

And with that, Henshaw counted to three and the Lions burst into a fine version of The Fields of Athenry. Hooker Ken Owens spoke in Welsh next and led the final Lions song, Welsh hymn Calon Lan.

10/10 all round.

The sheer beauty of this part of the world has made the last couple of days a joy away from the pitch, even if the Lions stuttered in their clash with the Barbarians on Saturday.

The British and Irish Lions accept the Maori challenge The Lions accepted a Maori challenge. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

The Whangaruru wharf provided a base for this particular writer and the scenery was breathtaking. Opening the curtains to a bay that is home to stingrays, dolphins and sometimes even orcas was an incredible experience.

New Zealand has shown its utter beauty in the space of just four days in the country, and the visit to the Bay of Islands will live long in the memory.

Tourism New Zealand have proved to be extremely welcoming hosts and treated the travelling media to lunch in the picturesque town of Russell, a short ferry ride across from Waitangi.

A few hours of serenity and sun before the show was back on the road, returning to Auckland as the Lions also made their way south to the capital city to begin their preparations for the clash with the Blues on Wednesday in Eden Park.

While things may be running smoothly off the pitch, the Lions have faced plenty of criticism since Saturday’s win over the Barbarians, with many in the New Zealand media suggesting that it was only a sign of greater difficulties to come.

The British and Irish Lions accept the Maori challenge New Zealand is a stunning place. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

The pōwhiri in Waitangi was an amazing occasion, but one wonders if Gatland would really have preferred less travelling and more training possibilities for his team, one that had already struggled to find time to prepare for this demanding tour.

The Lions boss was unhappy with Saturday’s matchday 23 having spent so long in sponsored Land Rover jeeps on Friday afternoon, taking part in various community visits en route to Whangarei.

The commercialisation of the Lions has become a talking point once again and though they will defend themselves vociferously, it’s hard to ignore the fact that the touring club is a brand as much as a rugby team.

All of that was easily forgotten on Sunday, however, as the Lions were welcomed to New Zealand in some style.

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About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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