The sense of relief after the 1st test in Brisbane was almost overwhelming. Getting a win for the 1st Test was so vital for the Lions to build some momentum as they headed to Melbourne, but also it kept excitement levels at fever pitch for most fans, which was vital as the tour headed to Melbourne.
Flying into Melbourne from Brisbane the perception that you’ve left Rugby Union country is unmistakable. Every paper you pick up in Melbourne has numerous articles on the AFL, with only one or two small columns with the latest Lions Tour news.
Having lived in Melbourne these last few months it has been somewhat of a siege mentality for a Lions fan. Many locals are totally unfamiliar with the Lions concept and are completely immersed in the ‘Footy’ (AFL). So seeing the red jerseys around town this week just brought on an incredible feeling of anticipation for Saturday.
Even walking down the street on Thursday night I saw a Land Rover decorated with the Lions insignia. Needless to say I immediately kept an eye out for some two legged Lions. Sure enough Jamie Heaslip and Conor Murray were fifty yards up the street. Unfortunately however they were busy getting a hair cut before the big game on Saturday so there wasn’t really an opportunity to shake their hand or get a picture! Regardless, the Lions were finally here and I no longer had to try and contain the giddiness I’ve been feeling for months!
So it was fantastic to head to the last midweek game against the Melbourne Rebels at AAMI Park and see the hordes of Lions fans out in strength. Swan Street is the main thoroughfare near Olympic Park and it was jammed with Lions supporters heading to and from the bars before and after the game.
Given the performance of the team in Brisbane it was clear there were still potential openings for the Test team on Saturday and as a result a match that could have been a dead rubber had in fact real bite and intensity. It was good to see the Rebels field their strongest possible team, but despite a committed performance the gulf in quality was fairly evident.
Still, be it in the 6 Nations or the Lions, ‘momentum’ is a word that is synonymous with Northern Hemisphere rugby and there can be no doubt that the momentum is certainly with the Lions this week. Given the lack of local interest in rugby union, there is a real possibility that the much vaunted Sea of Red will rise to its peak on Saturday as Lions fans take over at the Ethiad Stadium.
I read this week that every entity with a commercial interest in the Lions Tour is hoping for a Wallaby victory this weekend in order to set up a series decider in Sydney next week. Incredibly though I even met a few Lions fans who also expressed this view as they reckoned the excitement and atmosphere in Sydney would be that much better as a result.
Needless to say this is a fairly short sighted point of view. Most fans I spoke to were aware of the huge task a win in Sydney would be for the Lions coming up against a Wallaby team with their tails up. I’ve a feeling that some fans have become a little complacent after the Brisbane game. Winning that 1st Test has put the Lions in pole position, but it doesn’t diminish the fact that as the series progresses the Wallabies will get better and the matches will get tougher.
If the Wallabies win in Melbourne it will give their fans a real boost as they head to Sydney. Indeed Sportsbet were trying their hardest this week to get Australian fans engaged with the series, with the picture of a Wallaby ‘cuddling’ a Lion much in evidence at Melbourne Airport and outside AAMI Park!
Last week answered all the questions I could have had about whether the Lions could live up to the hype, whether it really was as special as everyone says. Running into former Lions Gerald Davies, Andy Nicol or Lawrence Dallaglio, or Mike Phillips and Jamie Roberts among others from the current crop, it was clear that this is an experience that lives long in the memory for the players.
The challenge now is to make this a series to remember with an historic victory. I feel incredibly lucky to be here in Australia to witness what has been a tremendously enjoyable tour so far. And somewhat selfishly I’d love to be able to look back in years to come and say that I was there when the Lions won their first series in 16 years.
Suncorp Stadium delivered an absolutely thrilling atmosphere and rugby match. And we’re looking forward to another tremendous sunny winter’s day in Melbourne, with great banter around the city.
I suspect I’m not alone however in saying that I hope for no more than a result from Ethiad Stadium.
By Conor Long (@conorlong1)
Photo by: Patrick Khachfe / Onside Images