Letter from New Zealand: Welcoming Wellington hits the spot

The locals in the capital city have been warm towards the visiting Lions fans.

Murray Kinsella reports from Wellington

AFTER THE RELATIVE madness of the first three and a half weeks of this Lions tour, settling into Wellington has felt a little bit like finding a home.

For the first time in New Zealand, Warren Gatland’s squad have been in the one place for a full week and they believe that will have benefits for their performance in Saturday’s second Test.

For the rest of us, it has meant a blissful chance to actually unpack the suitcase and really get a sense of the place we’re visiting. Wellington has been an utter joy.

It’s a compact little city but with all the delights of a bigger one, cool bars and fantastic food and good coffees everywhere. The people… well, to use a couple of Kiwi phrases, they are good buggers and good jokers.

On Monday night, we had the pleasure of being invited along to the Hurricanes Alumni dinner at the Pipitea Marae, a Maori meeting house. The Super Rugby club’s CEO, Avan Lee, is a former Clontarf man and his warm welcome was greatly appreciated.

The function involved an auction of various jerseys and memorabilia and raised around $50,000NZD for the Alumni organisation, which provides support for former Hurricanes going through difficult times.

Up on stage, All Blacks legends Graham Mourie and Brian Lochore were joined by World Cup winner Piri Weepu and former Lion Riki Flutey, although the star of the show was RTÉ’s Michael Corcoran, who won over the Wellington locals in style.

The capital city has a real community vibe and that’s illustrated by the sheer number of people who know the Hurricanes players here.

Down in the D4 on Featherston Street, there are signed Beauden Barrett jerseys on the walls – as well as one of Sean O’Brien’s Ireland shirts. Irish brothers Dermot and Barry Murphy run the place and are good family friends of the All Blacks out-half, whose father ‘Smiley’ is a regular visitor from Taranaki.

Up in Rugby League Park, where the Hurricanes are based, the laidback atmosphere continues.

Interviewing John Plumtree and Jason Holland was gloriously free of fuss and both coaches are relaxed, human and willing to engage. Their memories of Ireland are all positive, but both men are very happily settled here in Wellington and reluctant to move their families again.

Although Munster might be eyeing the pair of them after Rassie Erasmus’ departure was finally confirmed, they would take a fair bit of convincing.

Tuesday night saw a raucous crowd delight in the events at the Cake Tin, as the Canes played out a thriller with the Lions. It was by some distance the best atmosphere we’ve encountered in New Zealand and series organisers are hoping for the same again for the second Test.

The Kiwis themselves will admit that they are not the greatest fans in the world and it’s certainly one area where European rugby is ahead.

Atmospheres in New Zealand tend to be more reserved, with the support waiting for something to happen on the pitch to get excited about, rather than launching into songs and chants.

The efforts to have Kiwi fans embrace the Tutira Mai song by playing it through the tannoy systems in the stadiums have been a little strained and the Lions have even been annoyed that it has occurred while play is actually ongoing on the pitch.

Abuse of the opposition also appears to be alive and well, with the Lions subjected to a few choice words here and there during games, and even one of the travelling media found himself a target!

All that said, no one loves their rugby like the Kiwis and every conversation has eventually led back around to the big Lions issues. Supporters in Wellington have largely been united in their belief that starting Alun Wyn Jones is a mistake and that Ben Te’o can count himself desperately unlucky.

Overall view of the stadium as British and Irish Lions Jonathan Sexton and  Owen Farrell during the kicking practice The Cake Tin in Wellington. Billy Stickland / INPHO Billy Stickland / INPHO / INPHO

Wellington has provided plenty of distractions from the rugby, mind. The viewing points on Mount Victoria and up at the top of the cable car in Kelburn are beautiful, while the Te Papa museum and Great War Exhibition have been popular.

The bars along Courtenay Place have been doing lively business too, with the camper van hordes – and they are truly an army – showing off that famous rugby tourists’ thirst. The ambiance between Kiwis and the visitors has been brilliant, with so many stories of kindness and warm welcomes all over the country.

Everyone has come to New Zealand for the rugby but the country has so much more to offer, and it’s likely that those who can will return in the future.

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