Lions rugby fans invade NZ ready to paint the town red
IN THE SPOTLIGHT: A swarming red army of up to 30 000 British and Irish Lions fans are ready to party in New Zealand as the Test series against the world champion All Blacks looms.
Supporters have travelled halfway around the globe to see their team's once-every-12-years quest for rugby's Holy Grail, beating New Zealand in their own backyard.
Convoys of campervans have descended on Auckland ahead of the opening Test and hotels in New Zealand's largest city are at capacity for the Eden Park fixture
"This is huge for us," said Charmaine Ngarimu, head of major events for Auckland Council's tourism body ATEED which has converted the city's two racecourses into temporary parking to cope with the influx of motor homes.
"We're expecting about 900 campervans and we're ready to host them."
First priority for most Lions fans after securing accommodation is finding a welcoming watering hole and brothers Lee and Stephen Whitehead said Auckland's pubs could expect to do brisk business.
"We have a saying, win or lose, have a booze," Lee told AFP as he tucked into an early morning pint over breakfast at a waterfront bar.
"You'll see red everywhere, every pub you go in."
The pair, originally from Manchester, now live in Auckland and were so determined to see every Test that they signed up with multiple booking agencies in Britain and New Zealand to guarantee they got in-demand tickets.
As a result, they will watch Saturday's opening Test in the middle of a 1 000-strong group of All Blacks supporters after booking their package through a New Zealand outfit.
Stephen said he had no qualms about being surrounded by rival fans, describing All Blacks-Lions matches as "the greatest atmosphere".
"We've never had any trouble," he said. "The Kiwis are great, they have their banter and give us heaps, but we give it right back.
"There's no animosity, no violence. It's a pat on the back and well done when they win."
The friendly divide between fans even cuts across family ties for some, such as twins Dennis and Brian Whitaker, who are attending all 10 matches on the tour.
Brian moved to New Zealand 40 years ago and barracks for the All Blacks while British-based Dennis remains loyal to the Lions.
"He wears black and I wear red," Dennis told AFP, as his brother chipped in "it's going to be six weeks of stirring".
The Lions' on-field performances have steadily improved as the tour progressed and Josh Skinner from Worcester was confident they could claim a first series win in New Zealand since 1971.
"2-1 to the Lions," he predicted as he walked off a hangover along the Auckland foreshore.
"But we've got to take the first Test. I'm looking forward to getting stuck into it."
All Blacks legend John Kirwan said New Zealanders relished hosting Lions fans, whose chanting and singing liven up the country's normally muted rugby stadiums.
"They're great, great supporters. They love to sing, they love to have a couple of beers, it's all very jovial," he said.
"For me, it's the pinnacle of great sportsmanship. I think that's what we love about it the most in New Zealand."
The travelling supporters also give a welcome boost to New Zealand's bottom line.
The last Lions tour to New Zealand in 2005 attracted about 20 000 fans and injected an estimated NZ$135 million ($98 million) into the economy, including 431 000 international bed nights and a total of 355 000 tickets sold.
It also poured NZ$20.4 million ($14.8 million) directly into New Zealand Rugby's (NZR) coffers, helping it fend off lucrative offers for top All Blacks from cashed-up overseas clubs.
NZR has not revealed what it believes the windfall will be this year but has said the cash is the centrepiece of the loss-making organisation's plans to balance its books by 2020.
A British investment house says interest in the Lions tour goes far beyond New Zealand, or even the Home Nations that make up the composite team, hence its eagerness to sponsor the team's shirt.
"With global TV audiences of over one billion people across 120 countries and a unique sporting heritage going back over 125 years, the Lions provide a powerful platform to build our brand worldwide," it says on its website.
Lions fans are a coveted demographic of high net worth individuals, many of them professionals, with disposable income to spend on travel and accommodation following their team.
"It's like the cream of the supporters, they've got a little bit of money and they don't mind spending it," said Lee Whitehead, who is taking six weeks off work for the tour and started making bookings 10 months ago.
"I haven't seen the wife for about a week. I said 'I'll see you in July'," he said.
Stephen Whitehead said being a Lions supporter was all about passion for the game, regardless of the result, although victory over the All Blacks would make his efforts that little bit sweeter.
"We'll be smiling for four years," he said. "...and we'll probably be drunk for six months as well," his brother added.