|Lions Army has arrived in full
||[Jun. 19th, 2009|02:16 pm]
A 20km drive through Durban’s hectic early morning traffic is not the ideal start to any day. (For those who haven’t experienced it, the driving in South Africa leaves a lot to be desired; it is aggressive, quick and generally causes mayhem – a little like their rugby actually when you look at it like that). I was headed for the airport to return my hire car, and feeling weary after sampling the local nightlife and nervous about incurring fines from notoriously crooked rental companies, my mood was gloomy.|
Fortunately, the company representative was happy with the state of Kermit, our garish green Kia Picanto, also nicknamed The Green Machine when in Durban in honour of the Glenwood High School mascot (see previous blog). Not the most masculine car for two men to drive across the country, but like any good tight-head prop, he was solid and dependable. My spirits raised, I headed to the main terminal to catch a taxi back to base, where I was met by droves of Lions fans pouring out of the airport. This of course meant I had to wait a while, but strange as it sounds, I was more than happy to, because it hit home to me at that instant that the Lions play South Africa tomorrow. The Lions army is arriving here in force and no extra charges were acquired on the vehicle; it was, as it happened, a fine start to the day.
So far the Lions support, whilst overflowing with colour and noise, has not been as great in number as photos may suggest. There was a noticeable swell in numbers in Port Elizabeth for the Southern Kings fixture, with a number of fans joining in Cape Town for the Western Province game and travelling eastwards along the popular Garden Route to Port Elizabeth, and then Durban for the first test. But at my estimation there were 5,000 Lions at most inside the Nelson Mandela Bay stadium on Tuesday, a far cry from the 25,000 red-shirted supporters expected to be crammed in to Kings Park tomorrow afternoon. No doubt the arrivals area at the airport will be getting even busier as the day progresses.
In true British and Irish style, the popular Barney’s bar on the beach front where the majority of Lions fans celebrated Tuesday’s victory was drunk dry of beer. There were some notable outfits amongst the supporters, but the outstanding winners were a ten-strong group of men clad in all-in-one red morph suits, with the Lions crest emblazoned on the top half. To put it plainly, they look like giant condoms, and you will no doubt see these ridiculous yet brilliant costumes on television screens tomorrow.
My few days in Port Elizabeth were a fascinating spell of the trip. Prior to the tour Ian McGeechan said “the greatest thing about playing here – and it’s not a statement of the obvious – is that it’s Africa. And that is special.” It is certainly easy to forget you are in Africa with the bright lights of Cape Town and Durban, but the journey through the Transkei region poignantly highlighted the diversity of this great country. On the drive from Durban, the best part of a 2,000km round-trip, we encountered numerous stray horses and cows on the hard shoulder and potholes larger than a small swimming pool, not to mention the road-kill, and all this on the N2, a supposed motorway. Having successfully navigated it, the carnage of it all was something to behold.
Going against the norm in South Africa, Port Elizabeth is a region of predominantly football loving fans. There is more interest for Bafana Bafana (the football side’s nickname, literally translated as ‘boys boys’) in the Confederations Cup than the Springboks against the Lions. This is due in part to the fact that the area has been starved of top class rugby for a number of years, and the build-up was all about ‘The Rebirth of Black Rugby’ that the Southern Kings could bring to the Eastern Cape region. The locals put their round-ball addiction to one side and turned out in force at the new Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium, producing a terrific atmosphere to accompany the physical and fractious affair on the field. The stadium is fantastic, and should rugby return here on a permanent basis in the Super 15 in 2011 as is hoped, this will be one of the best around.
Sneaking a peak of the Lions train yesterday was encouraging; the focus and energy of the players plain to see even from a slightly restricted vantage point. It would seem that the players are ready, as are the fans, and as the tension reaches boiling point, the eruption at Kings Park could be something special. I have previously touched on how disappointing the tests were in New Zealand, and with that in mind I am trying to keep my own expectations in check for tomorrow; but it is simply impossible. June 20 has been etched into my mind for a long while, and now is under 24 hours away. The whole of Durban eagerly waits.