They’ve traveled halfway around the world for the trip of a lifetime.
Some of them have tattoos, and alcohol is definitely involved — but this is not your usual 18-35s holiday package.
“Open-age tours are a lot more relaxed,” says Nikki Cameron, one of the leaders for the official All Blacks supporters’ tours at the 2015 Rugby World Cup.
“Younger ones tend to look to you for entertainment, but these guys go off and do their own thing — they’ve got their plans already.”
Used to guiding boozed-up bus-loads of young Kiwis embarking on their traditional “Big O.E.”, Cameron is now dealing with a completely different type of tourist.
Some of them are retired, some are in “middle-age crisis” — and some have only just started school. Some are having their first overseas experience, others are veteran travelers.
On one hand, the mission is simple: Watch their beloved team make history by retaining the title. New Zealand is, after all, probably the most rugby-mad nation on the planet.
But away from the games, it’s about seeing the world, connecting with overseas relatives, celebrating relationships and expressing cultural identity.
The 47-night brigade
When it comes to commitment, you can’t doubt this quintet of middle-aged friends from Papakura, south Auckland.
Not only did they each stump up $NZ35,000 ($US24,000) for the most extensive tour package available, they also brought with them a permanent reminder of arguably New Zealand’s definitive cultural icon: The silver fern.
It has been the symbol of the All Blacks since the 1880s and features in the logos of many New Zealand sports teams.
While Prime Minister John Key is seeking to introduce a new national flag, this group — Craig and Suzanne Lockwood, their neighbors Grant and Barbara Duder, and Pippa Chard — inked their preference on their skin.
“It wasn’t about the rugby, it was about what represents us — being Kiwi,” explains Chard, the youngest of the companions at 45, in a sports bar near their London hotel.
Like her two female friends, the practice nurse has the silver fern on her lower leg. The men proudly reveal the frond — known as ponga in Maori — tattooed on their upper arms.
Was it a drunken decision? “No, more like a middle-age crisis!” laughs Craig Lockwood, 54, a business analyst.
Of the 4,500-plus fans traveling to the World Cup with All Blacks Tours, these ones got in fast. After New Zealand’s 2011 success, they signed up to the early-bird list — and later made tour shirts reflecting that they were the seventh to 11th applicants.
They even made up their own traveling title — “Duchalo,” from the letters of their surnames — after sealing their fellowship at Grant Duder’s 50th birthday party.
“We walked in with our champagne and beers and sat down at the table, saying where do we sign,” Craig Lockwood recalls. “Four hours later we were still drinking,” adds his wife Suzanne, 51, a gymnastics coach.
They had something else to celebrate — the day they signed on for the tour was also Craig and Suzanne’s wedding anniversary. Their son, meanwhile, turned 21 while they were on the Amsterdam leg of this tour: “We celebrated for him in style at a tiny pub with the best host/owner who shouted us rounds,” says Chard.
“We organized this four years ago,” recalls Chris Kaua. “We were sitting watching the final (between New Zealand and France) and were quite intoxicated.
“The kids were with us and I said to Jackie, ‘Right we’re going to the next one, which is in England.’ Next day I woke up and the kids said, ‘Are we still going?’ Yeah okay…”
So the five of them — Chris, his partner Jackie Steel, and kids Jordan (19), C.J. (10) and Olivia-Rose (8) — started saving for a 10-day tour.
They came over for a month in total, being in England for the All Blacks’ first two group games before visiting relatives in Scotland, heading to Paris to celebrate Chris and Jackie’s 11th anniversary, and then Barcelona.
“We’ve learned not to think about the (currency) conversion rate!” Jackie, who turned 46 on the trip, says of the costs involved. “If Chris and I did it by ourselves, it would be completely different, but we have to do things for the kids.
“They’ve been keeping a journal while we’re here. It’s been fun — we’ve experienced a lot.”
The retired couple
Aged 71 and 69, Dennis and Ann Owen aren’t the oldest members of the All Blacks tour groups — that honor goes to an 87-year-old. But they are among the most experienced; this is their third Rugby World Cup.
Although they’ve been living in Australia for the past 35 years, they are staunch All Blacks supporters and have ticked South America off their rugby list after taking a tour to Argentina.
“We’re hoping to go to Japan in 2019, that would be the final trip,” says Ann.
Her husband, originally from Hamilton in New Zealand’s North Island, says the tour format suits them perfectly — they are guaranteed match tickets and accommodation, and given the chance to explore the countries they are visiting.
Tournament organizers say the 48 matches are 97% sold out, with 1.8 million fans attending the 40 group games and 2.41 million tickets sold overall. The overseas contingent is estimated to be 460,000.
The tour guide
Cameron first came to the UK when her then boyfriend secured a rugby contract. She paid her dues working tours for the Contiki travel company, and helped set up its Southeast Asia operation.
If not for a snowboarding accident in Canada, she could still be pursuing a career on the slopes, but instead she returned home to New Zealand to resume work in the travel industry.
She’s spent the past year and a half working for All Blacks Tours, preparing for the World Cup. Collectively their clients will fly 17 million kilometers, staying in 4,672 rooms across 43 hotels in the UK and Europe.
“This is a beast of a tournament,” the 37-year-old says. “It’s so awesome to be involved in it.
“People (on the tours) are so passionate about rugby — they know everything from grassroots up to senior players, up to the last 30 years. Everyone’s up for a laugh, they’re so positive.”
Can New Zealand do it again?
The people at All Blacks Tours certainly hope so. Their big guns — 2011’s winning coach Graham Henry and Stephen Donald, who kicked the decisive points in that final — have just left home with fan groups for the knockout stages.
“I’m nervous that the All Blacks won’t do well,” admits Cameron. “What happens if they pull out in the quarters and I’ve got to stay until the finals with people — that’s going to be awful!”
New Zealand faces bogey team France in the quarterfinals on Saturday in Cardiff — the scene of the All Blacks’ shock defeat against the same opponent at the same stage in 2007.
But the fans are confident, nonetheless, that the team can be the first to win the tournament three times, having ended a 24-year wait for success on home soil in 2011.
“We haven’t come all this way and spent all this money to think we won’t make it,” says Chard, who is looking for “redemption” this weekend after the heartbreak of 2007.
Her friend Craig Lockwood adds: “We’re good enough — it’s just a case of the guys going out there and putting it together.”
“It’s a different pressure this time, last time was getting the monkey off our back,” says Grant Duder.
C.J. Kaua might already be back home in Hamilton, but he’ll be cheering louder than anyone if the All Blacks reach the final — the 10-year-old drew his favorite team in the family sweepstake.