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Lions carry hope against history in their lunatic endeavour to beat the All Blacks

The Guardian logo The Guardian 23/06/2017 Andy Bull in Auckland

All Black wing Rieko Ioane, who will start against the Lions in the first Test on Saturday, signs autographs for fans during the captain’s run at Eden Park. © Provided by Guardian News All Black wing Rieko Ioane, who will start against the Lions in the first Test on Saturday, signs autographs for fans during the captain’s run at Eden Park. Nine in the morning, the day before the game. Jet-lagged Lions fans are up before the winter sun, ambling around in a daze. They say there are 20,000 of them here, but Auckland has more than a million citizens and for the last few days the straggling bands of foreign supporters, conspicuous in their red jerseys, have looked a little lost in the bustle of a city going about its business.

But on Friday morning everything changed. Now they’re all here, the weekend’s near, and the atmosphere has come alive. You can see the excitement, sense the anticipation. “It’s getting real now, it’s definitely getting real,” said Conor Murray, just after he’d come back from a coffee with his family, who had flown in that morning. “The buzz is there, it feels proper.” Some of his team-mates were heading down into town themselves that afternoon, just to get a taste.

Someone asked Murray whether this was the most important match he’d ever played in. He didn’t miss a beat. “Yeah, to put it simply.” New Zealand hasn’t seen anything like it since the 2011 World Cup final, when the All Blacks beat France by a single point at Eden Park. Kieran Read played in that game but, bubbling over with enthusiasm, said on Friday that, just like Murray, this was the biggest match of his career. The players, like the fans, have been waiting 12 years for this Saturday to come around.

Some of the Lions’ travelling supporters, as Rob Howley said, started saving for this trip the minute the last tour finished. It’s an expensive holiday, one a lot of them will only take once in their lives.

By 10am, it’s busy by the waterfront. Queen’s Wharf, where the big ships used to dock, has turned into a fan zone. The New Zealand Rugby Union has moved all its silverware out of the glass case in the lobby of its head office in Wellington and set it all up in a giant white tent for everyone to see.

There’s a lot of it. The Webb Ellis Cup. The Bledisloe Cup. The Melrose Cup. The Hillary Shield. The Rugby Championship Trophy. And the Waterford Crystal vase the team won the last time they played the Lions, the 3-0 sweep back in 2005. Those Test matches are being replayed, in full, on the giant TV screens all around. The organisers may have overestimated the Lions fans’ appetite to watch those games all over again.

Behind it, in Shed 10, the music is so loud that the old rafters rattle and thrum with the bass. There’s a three-on-three touch rugby tournament going on, between local girls’ teams. They’re playing in a tiny netted arena, throwing the ball back and forth, honing their close-quarter skills. Find the gap, beat the defender, move the ball. The coaches stand on the sidelines telling their pupils to “Catchpass! Catchpass!”, the two skills so tightly combined that the words are conflated into one. Later that same day the All Blacks themselves were running similar drills at Eden Park, as part of their last practice before the match, the captain’s run. In New Zealand they learn this stuff early, and never stop practising it.

Upstairs in the Shed there’s another sort of exhibition on, one showing off the best of Pete Bush’s photographs. Bush started work back in the early 60s, and the walls are lined with five decades’ worth of black-and-white snaps of All Blacks rugby. Here’s Sid Going, sprinting out of the fog in a tour game against East Glamorgan, Colin Meads, one hand full of Allan Scherp’s shirt, the other ominously cocked, John Kirwan flying down the wing, Wayne Shelford, covered in blood. Famous names all around. Over the road, a couple of the modern day counterparts are signing photos in a sports shop.

All Black wing Rieko Ioane, who will start against the Lions in the first Test on Saturday, signs autographs for fans during the captain’s run at Eden Park. Photograph: Mark Baker/AP

Sonny Bill Williams and Sam Whitelock, keeping the sponsors happy. The queue to get in stretches out the door and both ways down the road, it must be 1,000 people long, and it takes an hour to move from the back to the front.

“Rugby was the best of our pleasures,” wrote the novelist John Mulgan. “It was religion and desire and fulfilment all in one.” That was back in ‘47, but there’s a ring of truth to it today. The English may have invented this game, but the New Zealanders took it as their own. They haven’t lost a game at Eden Park – “our home”, says Read – since July 1994, when the French beat them 23 to 20. They drew the next Test, against South Africa, and since then they’ve won the 37 in a row, 1319 points for, 510 against.

It’s easy to get lost in stats like that. There are so many of them that they make your head spin. In the last 10 years New Zealand have won 57 home games and lost three, the last of the defeats back in September 2009. So they’re unbeaten here in eight years.

What odds, then, that the Lions might upset New Zealand this Saturday night, or even in the series? Theirs is one of the most lunatic endeavours in professional sport, an attempt to cobble a bunch of rival players together into a functioning team in the space of just few short weeks. This in an era when sides spend countless hours, days, weeks, months, and years learning to play in intricate systems, studying gameplans that have been designed with scientific precision. They say that Joe Schmidt spent six months teaching Ireland how they were going to beat the All Blacks before their famous victory in Chicago last November. Warren Gatland has had six weeks.

That victory, which was followed by a 12-point defeat in Ireland a fortnight later, was only the 11th the four home nations, England, Ireland, Wales and Scotland, have managed against New Zealand in 133 games across 112 years of trying. And only two of those were won here in New Zealand, by England in 1973 and 2003. Together, as the Lions, the four nations have won another six Test matches, the last of them back in 1993. When you look at the record books, you realise the job of trying to beat New Zealand in New Zealand is only a little less futile than a gig playing for the Washington Generals, the team of paid stooges whose job it is to lose to the Harlem Globetrotters each week.

And yet, and yet, no one hopes quite like a Lions fan. Those two wins against the Crusaders and the Maori All Blacks have given the team, and their supporters, new faith. The New Zealanders seem (whisper it) spooked by the success of the Lions’ rush defence. And as Murray said, Ireland’s victory in Chicago is a good reminder that it can be done. And this All Blacks team, which is missing Dane Coles, has the 20-year-old Rieko Ioane on the wing and is led by a man, Read, who hasn’t played in eight weeks, isn’t as strong as it might have been. Only, a lot of teams have come here thinking similar things in the last 100 years. And most of them were swiftly disabused. The Lions optimism will last till kick-off at least.

Whether it will still be there by the final whistle is another matter.

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