Lions in awe after stunning welcome at Waitangi

12:17 PM BST

WAITANGI, New Zealand — The British & Irish Lions have been in New Zealand for five days, but under the crisp winter sun, they were officially welcomed to Aotearoa in a ceremony at Waitangi’s treaty grounds that will live long in the memory of those lucky enough to witness it. It was a privilege to be there as Maori culture invaded every pore of you against the jaw-dropping beauty of the Bay of Islands.

It was a morning of passion and pride as the local Maori tribe put on a breathless Pōwhiri; a welcoming ceremony. Though the Lions are taking time to develop on-field chemistry, they played their part perfectly and Warburton was a great ambassador for his squad as he answered the challenges posed by the waiting warriors.

“It’s a big exercise pulling together a Pōwhiri of this scale, spanning so many different iwi but it’s all been worth it,” Waitangi treaty grounds cultural manager Mori Rapana said.

“The preparations have included practice sessions throughout Northland from Kaitaia to Whangarei, Auckland and even in Sydney. Members of Ngā Uri o Rāhiri, a Sydney based group even flew over to participate at this awesome national welcome.”

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It was hard to believe this is meant to be New Zealand’s winter. It was a perfect, crisp day as thousands of local residents and travelling Lions supporters journeyed to this beautiful area of the North Island.

Campervans filled the local parks and the roads were rammed on approach. The drive into the treaty grounds was slow, as a group of warriors were in formation, walking up to meet the Lions. A Maori war canoe was moored off Paihia, waiting to carry others over to meet the tourists for the first of three challenges.

The first challenge the Lions received was in front of the 35-metre, six tonne Maori war canoe, Ngātokimatawhaorua, down on Hobsons Beach. John Spencer accepted the taonga — an offering — after being met by a taua — a warrior contingent — who approached the tourists in a battle formation.

They were then led up the Nias Track to the second challenge by the staff carrying three flags – the Union Jack, New Zealand’s current emblem and the United Tribes of New Zealand flag. This was where in 1840 the Treaty of Waitangi was signed, deemed to be New Zealand’s founding document. The Lions were met by a group of 400 or so warriors — mainly from the Northland Maori iwi, the Ngāpuhi — and captain Warburton was led forward to accept that challenge.

Lions captain Sam Warburton accepts the challenge from Maori warriors at Waitangi. Hannah Peters/Getty Images for TNZ

The Lions then progressed to the carved meeting house, named Te Whare R ū nanga where they were greeted with a call of welcome — karanga — and a welcome chant, the haka powhiri. The noise was incredible, and the bare feet pounding the concrete ground outside the house would drown the beat of any drum. The Lions waited and then walked through the middle of the warriors, and after removing their shoes, entered the meeting house.

Here the Lions were welcomed by Maori elders and responded with speeches and song. Spencer led the greetings with a speech, labelling it a day “where your heart sings and soul rejoices”. He earmarked two key values for the Lions, “unity and friendship”, and quoted two lines from ‘I Vow to Thee, My Country’: “And there’s another country, I’ve heard of long ago. Most dear to them that love her, most great to them that know.”

“This isn’t a ceremony that’s extended to very many people, so we feel very privileged,” Spencer said afterwards, but key to the Lions’ response to the welcome was a focus on local dialect. They performed all four of the songs they’ve been practising – Highland Cathedral, Fields of Athenry, Calon Lân and Jerusalem — and Robbie Henshaw said a short speech in Gaelic while Ken Owens spoke in Welsh.

“The choir delivered! We’ve put a lot of practice in behind closed doors and it’s been good, from a bonding point of view,” Warburton said. “We have a great laugh with it, but the guys have really bought into it. For the English, Scottish and Irish lads to learn Calon Lân is really impressive.”

A gift was offered to the Maoris, and after locating their pairs of shoes amid the sea of identical options, the Lions distributed mini rugby balls to the crowd.

“Off the rugby field, that was probably one of the best experiences I’ve had,” Warburton said. “All the players came out of there in awe really.

“I think that’s really important. You want to come over here and paint a good picture of the British & Irish Lions and that is as important as the stuff you do on the field. From a players’ perspective, you want to focus on performance but you realise when you go on Lions tours, it is greater than that. It is the legacy you leave behind.”

The tour will always be judged on how the Lions fare against the All Blacks and rightly so. Lose 3-0 and it will go down as a failure. But for those there at Waitangi, watching an incredible ceremony against the most beautiful of backdrops, it was an event which filled the soul with goodness.

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