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Letter From New Zealand: Lions Ready To Triumph In Battle Of The Stands

WELLINGTON, NEW ZEALAND - JULY 01: Lions fans show their support during the International Test match between the New Zealand All Blacks and the British & Irish Lions at Westpac Stadium on July 1, 2017 in Wellington, New Zealand. (Photo by Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)

Nick Heath, Pundit Arena’s man on the ground in New Zealand, gives his thoughts on the battle of the fans as the Lions prepare for the third and final test.

New Zealand rugby has proved it has plenty of haka but not enough song.

The haka, the war dance of the Maõri, is bellowed, yelled and harangued with gusto throughout these parts. New Zealanders are rightly proud and inclusive of their 13th century settlers.

That pride though, as often, comes after a fall and in New Zealand’s case their fall was the raw deal the Maõri’s received when the British colonised the place. Protests for over fifty years and successive governments have sought to mend the past by apologising through moral and financial means.

The idea of suggesting there is now too much haka is, therefore, an outrageous cultural faux pas that only a touring rugby journalist idiot would make. Enchanté.

The Crusaders perform a Haka during the rugby union match between the Crusaders and the British and Irish Lions at AMI Stadium in Christchurch on June 10, 2017.  / AFP PHOTO / Marty MELVILLE        (Photo credit should read MARTY MELVILLE/AFP/Getty Images)

I first saw the All Blacks perform their haka live at Twickenham in November 1993 and though less impassioned than its modern delivery, it was no less spine tingling. It felt like a team saying: “This is who we are, our spirit and our people and we challenge you.” Is there an argument to suggest it is best kept as this symbol from home? A flag laid down on foreign sand? What could be more tribal?

The encouragement of many of the Super Rugby franchises to have delivered their own haka on this Lions tour has seemed to take the mystique away from this once magical moment. It feels we are only a tongue-poke away from a “Fashion Your Own Haka” website where everyone in the world is entitled to their own variation.

On the issue of advantage too, does the use of the haka create an inner strength and intimidate an opponent? A Maõri friend and rugby fan pointed out to me that he suspects it distracts many players from concentrating on the game, which is why the All Blacks rarely have a decent start. Shame for everyone else they have mastered the middle and end.

Auckland , New Zealand - 24 June 2017; The British and Irish Lions face the haka prior to the First Test match between New Zealand All Blacks and the British & Irish Lions at Eden Park in Auckland, New Zealand. (Photo By Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile via Getty Images)

So what of New Zealand song? In Dunedin, have their stoic Scottish roots bred a more reserved Kiwi, less keen on an unabashed warbling? Or perhaps in Auckland, where the increased Pacific Island population relies on a raised eyebrow based “S’up bro?” communication system – has belting of anthems, official or not, become uncustomary?

Ahead of the Lions series, the All Blacks have promoted the singing of ‘Tutira Mai’, an old Maõri campfire type standard that calls for everyone to stand together. At every ground pre-match, the video featuring All Blacks legends among schoolchildren is screened and the words displayed à la bouncing ball. Oh, and the crowd sing along. A bit. Like you do as an atheist at a religious wedding.

What the marketing team of the All Blacks have failed to realise is that the crucial join-in section of “Tatou-Tatou” can easily be replaced with “Lions! Lions!”. Thus the clunky attempt to bring song to the often tuneless grounds of New Zealand has resulted in thousands of travelling Celts & Anglo-Saxons drowning out the locals with great aplomb.

WELLINGTON, NEW ZEALAND - JULY 01:  Lions fans show their support during the International Test match between the New Zealand All Blacks and the British & Irish Lions at Westpac Stadium on July 1, 2017 in Wellington, New Zealand.  (Photo by Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)

Esteemed RadioSport radio commentator Nigel Yealden has called on the fans to revive “All Blacks! All Blacks!” at Eden Park. Forgive me Nigel, but doesn’t something had to have existed in order to be revived?

Anyone who follows me on social media during tours to New Zealand is aware of my irritation of the match experience here. Each stadium DJ must be paid on a pay-per-play of snippets from ‘Moves Like Jagger’ and other pop music earworms inserted during every stoppage of play. The poor Welsh have only managed one attempt of ‘Bread of Heaven’, which quickly became ‘Bread of Jagger’ and that did for the lot of them.

Thank God then for Seven Nation Army. The cries of “Ohh Maro Itohhje!” around the cake tin in Wellington were wonderful. Indeed, the travelling journo pack have feted our own Irish colleague “Ohh Murray Kinsella!” at times and after a wine tasting in Arrowtown, a celebratory “Ohh Central Otaaago!” once the Pinot Noir found its spot.

So to the All Blacks, it will be a fantastic battle on Saturday but expect the Lions to win. I’m not talking about the game, just what happens in the stands.

Nick Heath is our UK Head of Rugby, a self-confessed atmosphere junkie and is in New Zealand exclusively for Pundit Arena.

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