AUCKLAND (Reuters) - They have shelled out thousands of dollars and travelled 18,000 kilometres around the world to drink beer and roar on a team that never plays at home -- the “Red Army” of British and Irish Lions supporters has hit Auckland.
Up to 20,000 English, Scottish, Welsh and Irish fans are expected to visit New Zealand during the Lions tour and on Friday they were packing city centre bars on the eve of the first of three tests against the All Blacks.
“It’s getting real now,” said Lions scrumhalf Conor Murray.
”Over the last week you can see the numbers arriving and the buzz is definitely there and it feels proper now.
“There’d be something wrong with you if you didn’t enjoy this.”
The demographic is predominantly male and 40 plus, with faces that sometimes show the scars of the rugby battles of their own youth and mostly clothed in at least one piece of Lions merchandise.
Derek Carnegie, a Scot who now lives in Newbury in England, is fulfilling a lifetime ambition by travelling to New Zealand to watch the three tests against the world champions.
“I’ve always wanted to go on a Lions tour and the All Blacks is the epitome of the Lions,” he said, clad in a red Lions shirt and enjoying an early evening beer at an Irish-themed pub.
“I‘m 68 now and I’ll probably not be able to do it when they next tour New Zealand in 2029 so I thought, this was my chance.”
The mood in the pubs and bars where the Lions fans congregate can be drunken but is almost always good-natured with banter rather than punches exchanged with local rugby fans.
Lions tour manager John Spencer was involved in an incident on Wednesday where he was shoved by a local while dining at an Auckland restaurant but assistant coach Rob Howley was keen to emphasise that it was very much the exception.
“I spoke to John. It’s an isolated incident, a disappointing incident,” the Welshman told reporters on Friday.
“Since we’ve been here in New Zealand we’ve had a fantastic welcome. The New Zealand public have been unbelievable in their hospitality wherever we’ve been. Unfortunately, in sport there’s always a minority.”
Prices for organised tours ranged up to $15,000 for a 40-day tour stay with flights, accommodation and tickets to all 10 matches but most have managed to do it for less by limiting their stay and being selective about the games they see.
Some, like Welshman Brian Davies, travelled without match tickets at all, making the trip just to be in Auckland, where two of the three test matches take place, and soak up the atmosphere of the “ultimate rugby tour”.
In his case a chance meeting on an Auckland street with a ticket “tout”, or scalper, he knows from back home in Cardiff means he will now be among the 50,000 crowd at Eden Park on Saturday.
The Lions tour New Zealand every 12 years and won just one series in 1971 but success on the pitch is not necessarily the point for the soldiers in the Red Army.
“I don’t care,” added Carnegie. “I reckon that being in the stadium and being part of a Lions tour is enough. Even if we lose 80-0, it’s all about the sport, it’s all about the buzz.”
Editing by Greg Stutchbury