Confirmation of the British & Irish Lions tour dates to South Africa in 2021 provides cause for excitement and anticipation when it’s needed most, writes CRAIG LEWIS.
Who could forget that incredibly effective marketing line for the 2010 Fifa World Cup in South Africa … ‘Feel it, it is here’!?
It’s a sentiment that will have been similarly reignited with confirmation on Wednesday that the 2021 Lions tour will be going ahead as originally scheduled in July and August next year.
So much planning and preparation has gone into ensuring the Lions squad will be able to arrive on South African shores, and along with them will come tens of thousands of madly passionate fans.
It provides an experience like no other, and one that still resonates in my memory from 2009.
To take a trip down memory lane, that tour to South Africa boasted all the ingredients of a recipe dished up in any rugby lover’s dreams.
Back then, I was a wide-eyed journalist in just my second year as a rugby writer, and nothing could have prepared me for the arrival of the Lions, their hordes of fans and the masses of media.
Ahead of the highly-anticipated first Test in Durban, there was quite literally no room to sit during news conferences as packs of journalists scrummed around then coach Ian McGeechan to snap up any morsels of information around the team’s plans for facing the world champs.
Wherever you went in the city, touring fans clad in Lions jerseys lined the streets and bars, quite literally painting the town red.
The frenzy only escalated as game day drew closer.
Despite arriving at Kings Park hours before kick-off, it was virtually impossible to find parking as thousands upon thousands of supporters descended on the stadium, finding their voice amid free-flowing ‘refreshments’.
I’ll never forget arriving with a few colleagues and friends, only for one of them – who was wearing Springbok colours – to be lifted on to the shoulders of a group of Lions supporters and good-naturedly carried away as if they were doing their part to ensure there was one less South African fan at the stadium.
As it turned out, there wasn’t too much to worry about in that regard as a sea of red jerseys filled out Kings Park, providing an electric atmosphere for the visiting team that is proudly unique to any Lions tour.
Due to the masses of media, I eventually managed to negotiate my way to the press ‘overflow’ area, which was situated in the stands and provided the sense of being part of the heaving crowd.
Spine-tingling renditions of the respective anthems followed, before the roars at kick-off and after every piece of play sent vibrations around the stadium.
It was an atmosphere like no other.
Although the vociferous Lions supporters were initially subdued by a strong start from the Springboks, and Beast Mtawarira’s famed demolition of Phil Vickery at scrum time, they truly found their voice when a comeback was launched in the second half.
And, to my amazement, midway through the match two touring media colleagues suddenly whipped off their jackets to unveil British & Irish Lions jerseys underneath as they joined the thousands cheering on the touring team. As it turned out, the duo were radio personalities who had come along for the ride more than anything else.
It is a tour like no other, after all.
After 80 minutes of pulsating action, the Springboks emerged victorious, hanging on for a thrilling 26-21 victory that laid the foundation for a series-securing triumph a week later.
Win or lose, though, the tourists’ legions of fans added a festive flavour of colour and cacophony wherever the Lions went.
It’s an experience like no other, and a tour that will only be heightened in anticipation after a period when rugby has faced unprecedented challenges in 2020.
Bring it on!
Photo: Getty Images