Saturday 29th June will live long in my memory as an almost perfect day. It was hard to know whether the 2nd Test, in the heart of AFL country, would be able to match the standard set the week before in Brisbane.
But heading into central Melbourne on Friday night the atmosphere was excellent. Hordes of Lions supporters had made the trip down from The Sunshine State, and were in a passionate and optimistic mood. The iconic Young & Jacksons pub opposite Flinders St Station was taken over by Lions fans in fine voice. Unsurprisingly most of the singing was led by a group of Welshmen, but pockets of fans from the other three nations ensured Bread of Heaven was matched with Fields of Athenry, Swing Low and Flower of Scotland.
My initial plan to merely sample the atmosphere for a short couple of hours obviously fell through and I happily joined in the tremendous showing of camaraderie until the wee hours.
Nevertheless I was lucky enough to wake up fresh and ready to go early on Saturday morning. It was one of those glorious days when almost everything seemed to go right, and there was a whiff of history in the air.
Very often on a day like Saturday there are a few things you have to do before you can relax and enjoy the atmosphere. Maybe there are friends in town for the occasion who you really should meet, someone is always looking for a ticket, and usually the bar is wedged and it’s almost not worth the hassle to get a drink. But somehow yesterday it went like clockwork.
The banter with Wallaby fans kicked off early while enjoying a fortifying breakfast in a sun soaked cafe across from Melbourne’s Botanical gardens, and didn’t stop all day. Somewhat as expected, the Sea of Red flooded into Melbourne and yellow jerseys were grossly outnumbered throughout the day.
Most of the red shirted fans found their way to the riverside tables of Melbourne’s Southbank and here they soaked up the sunshine, the atmosphere and assorted beverages in equal quantities. Any Wallaby fan that got separated from the pack and passed through here was pounced upon by Lions, lustily chanting and singing their support for the men from the Home Nations.
When word of a spare ticket drifted through the bar it was duly procured, and another little drop was added to the Sea of Red. And if you wanted to meet up with friends in a city jammed with rugby fans, then what better way than to enjoy a few drinks at the heart of the action and trust to fate and the rugby gods that they’d wander across your path. Which they duly did.
With things working out so well we headed to the Ethiad Stadium in a buoyant mood. For weeks I’d been telling anyone who’d listen however that for the Lions to win the series they needed to have it wrapped up after two games. So I was justifiably nervous, and just hoping that whatever kind of game we witnessed the result would fall in our favour.
The last time the Lions won a series they were mostly outplayed in the 2nd Test, but a dead eyed goal kicker from Wales at full back kept them close enough for an ice cool drop goal from Jeremy Guscott to sneak a victory. Unfortunately the similarities with last Saturday stopped there and there were to be no last gasp heroics in the Ethiad. The Australian media will no doubt claim justice was done this week after Kurtley Beale’s miss last week.
Regardless of the details though, the feeling that the series has now slipped from the Lion’s paws was inescapable and the jubilant celebrations from the Australian players seemed to imply that they were thinking something similar.
The gut-wrenching feeling as Leigh Halfpenny’s kick dropped short must have been nothing compared to what the players felt and you marvel at professional sports players’ ability to get back on the horse so soon after expending so much both physically and emotionally.
Naturally the mood around Melbourne was more subdued post match, and the warm fuzzy feeling of satisfaction from Brisbane perished in the plummeting temperatures of the Melbourne night.
It’s hard to escape the feeling now that we travel to Sydney more in hope than expectation, even though the bookmakers have somehow made the Lions very slight favourites. There will be plenty of talk this week about the Lions being at the end of a long season and the Wallabies beginning to hit their stride after two tough Tests and other such factors contributing to the monumental task confronting the Lions.
And there’s no doubt that many of these facts will hold water, but I’m far too emotionally involved in this series now to let that kind of thinking colour the enjoyment of the final Test. So I’m sure that over the next few days I’ll manage to rationalise this defeat, and when Saturday morning dawns over the Sydney Harbour Bridge I’ll have convinced myself that there’s no reason why we shouldn’t win!
Needless to say, had that last gasp kick gone over the 22nd June would have been a perfect day. So now it’s 1-1 and an epic series decider awaits us all in Sydney, and I hope I’m wrong about the Lions chances. Because while 2-0 would have been just fine, if it comes down to a last gasp kick to win the 3rd Test for the Lions it would surely bring the series to a close in stunning fashion.
That would be a perfect day.
By Conor Long (@conorlong1)