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Miracles do happen [Jun. 26th, 2009|11:37 am]
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A note for the Lions and their supporters: miracles do happen. Yesterday morning, I woke to a thick blanket of snow outside my hostel window. No, I had not escaped to a remote part of Siberia following the bitter disappointment of last Saturday's first test defeat; I was in the heart of South Africa. In the midst of the Drakensberg mountains admittedly, but snow in Africa, even in this region, is rare indeed. “We get a bit of snow here maybe three or four times a year, but nothing like this, and never in my life have I seen any in June,” I was informed by Steven, my 41 year-old minibus driver to Pretoria, a lifelong inhabitant of the Underberg in South Africa's rangy midlands. After the courageous loss in Durban, the Lions have a mountain of their own to climb to keep the test series alive tomorrow, and victory at the fortress of Loftus Versfeld would be seen as equally miraculous in rugby circles.

This week I have lived a distinctly rural existence, enjoying some time in the farming heartlands in the midlands of the country, following spells with the city slickers of Port Elizabeth and Durban. It has been a welcome escape from the growing derision from local fans, and a chance to recharge for the second test after the huge rise – and subsequent fall – in excitement for last week's game. The escape was far from total; the Emerging Springboks game, watched in a local pub in Nottingham Road (rather more picturesque than England's namesake town), sparked noisy celebrations following their last gasp draw. A wonderful trip to Lesotho on Wednesday was shared exclusively with Lions fans, eight in all, but thankfully the South African driver was far more interested in rock rather than ruck formations, so the focus could briefly escape from the rugby.

The occasion at Kings Park certainly did not disappoint. The sea of green and red and the cacophony of noise beforehand was fantastic; a true sporting spectacle. There was a terrific ambiance among the home fans, too, and the car parks outside were teeming with people before and after the game. What a shame the Lions could not match it, with a dreadful opening half which left us up against it for the remainder of the game, and now the series. Official reports from the Durban tourism board reported 23,000 British and Irish visitors in the city, and estimated a total income in the region of $3million(R40m) generated from hotels, restaurants and bars as a result. South Africa were the winners on all fronts on the weekend it would seem, apart from the ticketing, where late returning of somewhat overpriced tickets for the tests from local unions and tour operators left at least a thousand empty seats at the ground. There are still tickets available – an unthinkable concept a few months ago – for the Pretoria and Johannesburg tests.

My friend told me that the swathes of red Lions shirts at Kings Park on Saturday were reminiscent of Istanbul in 2005, when Liverpool-red cloaked Istanbul for the Champions League final. With the final minutes approaching following Mike Phillips' try, I dared to dream that the Lions were going to replicate them on the field with the most unlikely of comebacks. Unfortunately, that proved a bridge too far; but yesterday proved that stranger things have happened than a Lions win in Pretoria. We live in hope.
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