Lions frenzy 'like World Cup' grips Auckland
IN THE SPOTLIGHT: A rugby fever unmatched since the 2011 World Cup Final has gripped Auckland as the city readies for a winner-takes-all showdown between the All Blacks and the British and Irish Lions.
Up to 30 000 Lions fans travelled to New Zealand for the six-week tour and they have invaded the city in readiness for the third and deciding Test at Eden Park on Saturday.
Convoys of mobile homes have parked at specially created camp sites in the city's two racecourses and Air New Zealand has reported a surge in bookings into Auckland for the occasion.
In bars and restaurants, red shirts prevail as groups of visiting fans make the most of local hospitality, often chanting support for the composite rugby team that only visits New Zealand once every 12 years.
All Blacks fan David Paul rated the match's importance alongside the back-to-back World Cups won by New Zealand in Britain in 2015 and on home soil at Eden Park in 2011.
"This is a big game for New Zealand as a country, up there with the last two World Cups," he said.
"We've got to be confident given our record at Eden Park... but I'm expecting a very tight game."
The excitement has also rubbed off on the players, with New Zealand flank Jerome Kaino saying there was an "edge" at training which added to the World Cup flavour.
"It definitely has that feel. The excitement we had at training today backs that up," said Kaino, who was part of the 2011 and 2015 triumphs.
"The Lions are a great side and there's a lot of history between these two teams, so being 1-1 it does have that feeling about it."
For many Lions fans, visiting New Zealand is the trip of a lifetime and the fact that their team has pushed the world champions to a decider is an added bonus.
"What I've enjoyed most is the stunning scenery in New Zealand. It's an amazing country," James Dennis said.
"I came here not expecting to see the Lions win any Tests, so for us to get one is a massive achievement."
Others, such as Dafydd Evans, were daring to dream of the Lions achieving their first series win since 1971.
"There's a great atmosphere here and even if the Lions lose on Saturday we'll still have the best holiday ever," he said.
"But if we win, it would just be incredible, up there with the biggest sporting upsets in history. It would put the players down in immortality."
Most New Zealanders remain certain they can improve on the 21-24 loss in Wellington, when they were without red-carded centre Sonny Bill Williams for most of the match.
Yet the mere fact that the All Blacks have not been utterly dominant and must go to a decider has prompted Fairfax New Zealand to label it one of the most important Test matches ever played in the country.
Radio Sport host Martin Devlin told listeners he was so excited and nervous about the match that he had been unable to sleep.
He also urged the normally silent All Blacks fans to match the roar of the Lions supporters, who created an electric atmosphere in Wellington that touring skipper Sam Warburton likened to "a 16th man".
"We need sound and volume... every time the Lions chant starts we need 'black-black-black'," Devlin said.
The All Blacks have not lost a series at home or a Test at Eden Park for 23 years, a record which inspires confidence among Kiwis.
"Worries? You can't be worried mate. We don't lose many games and we haven't lost at Eden Park since 1994," Will Todd said.
"That's a pretty decent record, that should be enough to carry us home."