Saturday was a unique occasion for so many reasons. Not just because it was the Lions, and all of the tradition and history that goes with that. But a sporting occasion that has been hyped to the last over the past few months delivered an experience beyond any other I’ve ever seen.
I remember watching the Lions 12 years ago at home. My 3 brothers and I got up unusually early on the Saturday mornings to make sure we caught all the build up, and headed down to a friend’s house to watch the games (we only had the free to air channels at home and no Sky TV). You always think it would be brilliant to one day go to the Lions, but never really expect it to come about.
So when I awoke in Brisbane on the Saturday morning of the 1st Test 12 years later it seemed a slightly surreal experience. My excitement levels were through the roof, but I was also ridiculously nervous. Not just about the rugby. The Lions is about more than just the rugby. It’s an occasion rare enough and also just far enough away that you can never be sure you’ll make it to another tour. And as a result there’s an awesome pressure on the occasion to deliver an experience that lives up to the hype. If I’m honest I’d been looking forward to this day so much it probably wasn’t healthy. But the sun was shining in through the window, it was a cool, crisp winter’s morning and conditions were perfect for rugby.
And the day delivered in spades.
As the bars replayed Lions versus Australia games from past tours throughout the afternoon, and the familiar chant of ‘Liiiiiiiiiiionns’ periodically washed over the streets we inched ever closer to kick off time. Scanning the milling crowds of supporters there were various types of discussion going on as to our chances for the 1st test and for the series. People were still heatedly arguing over the merits of Gatland’s selections and the best combination of the Australian back line.
Here and there sat quieter folk who didn’t get involved in these discussions. You could see they’d been over it all already, too many times. However you saw the makeup of the back row, or the potential impact of the bench it was too late now for anything to be done about it. The die was cast and all we could do was hope and pray that Warren had got it right.
The repercussions of a loss for Lions fans would have been huge. Most of these folk are on holidays, whether from Ireland or Britain or New Zealand or wherever in the world they’ve found themselves in these times. The idea of trying to enjoy a holiday having been dealt such a psychological blow doesn’t bear thinking about.
Of course, amongst all those fans you could see the odd off duty/injured player or former player also soaking up the atmosphere and courteously signing autographs while trying to remain as inconspicuous as possible. And it just reinforces how special the Lions are. Because they also know that they might not make it to another tour.
When we got to the wonderfully appointed Suncorp Stadium however it became clear that the Sea of Red that had washed over downtown Brisbane wouldn’t be engulfing the actual stadium. The Wallabies fans had turned out in force and the crowd was about 50-50. And the nerves were jangling. While the rugby may have lacked in quality at times the contest provided everything a fan could want, most importantly a result, but also plenty of room for improvement.
The overriding emotion in the immediate aftermath of the match was pure and simple relief. Many fans seem to be on tour for the first two tests only, so they’re praying for a 2-0 victory before they have to fly back to the real world. Indeed I met one fan from Dublin who had flown out for 1st Test and was returning to Ireland on Monday.
Another fan I met was a three Tour veteran, having been to NZ and SA on the last two tours. He left me in no doubt that we had just witnessed something to treasure, and those same fans that were nervously arguing the toss with their friends before the game basked in the knowledge that an awesome opportunity presents itself for the Lions in Melbourne. The pressure this week will be on the Wallabies, and us Lions fans can relax in the afterglow of a job done.
Perhaps it wasn’t well done, perhaps it wasn’t entirely deserved. But it didn’t stop thousands of red shirted fans celebrating it to the fullest extent. And as hope springs eternal, we’ll anticipate a more accomplished performance in Melbourne next Saturday and an historic Series victory!
By Conor Long (@conorlong1)
Photo by: Patrick Khachfe / Onside Images