Rugby rivals roaring with one voice is beauty of Lions
Published 01/07/2013 | 05:00
It was the moment that crystallised the uniqueness of a Lions Tour. The English song 'Swing Low, Sweet Chariot' started up and reverberated around the Etihad Stadium in Melbourne just past the hour mark in Saturday's second Test against Australia. I have to admit, it was pretty stirring. Usually a lot of rugby fans from Ireland, Wales and Scotland cringe at that tune and try to drown it out during Six Nations games. This time, it seemed fans from all nations joined in.
As a sporting arranged marriage between countries, the Lions concept should probably feel contrived. But it doesn't. In fact, last week in Melbourne felt like a dream date. In the hours leading up to Saturday's Test, the soundtrack to the streets was the roar of 'Lions'. There was a riot of colour with red mixing with the yellow hard hats of the Aussie fans. Melbourne was made for days like this – a city so culturally diverse hosting a team which has a multi-cultural background of its own.
Our default setting is naturally programmed to a desire to beat England, Scotland and Wales every time we play them. How enjoyable was last February's Six Nations win over Wales in Cardiff? Thrilling. How disappointing was the 2011 Rugby World Cup quarter-final defeat to Wales? Crushing.
But it is when the Lions fans are brought together under the communal red flag that can show us how similar we can be to our Celtic cousins and England. An estimated 30,000 fans travelled to the other side of the world for this because of a shared love and passion for rugby.
In particular, the Irish and Welsh fans seem to be drawn to each other. Lions fan Adam Wynn, who travelled to Melbourne from Dublin, said the Welsh "love a good sing-song and they're up for the craic". His friend Ian Bell added that the Irish and the Welsh "both know how to have a good time and we're not afraid to make fools out of ourselves!"
And that's just the fans. Check out the budding bromance between Wales's Dan Lydiate and Ireland's Sean O'Brien. Both are farming connoisseurs. When I spoke to Lydiate about his farming chats with O'Brien, his face lit up. On the last tour to South Africa in 2009, Ronan O'Gara and Paul O'Connell got on so well with Wales scrum-half Mike Phillips that Phillips admitted after that it was going to be tough to play against his Irish friends. There just seems to be a tradition where the Irish and Welsh players get on particularly well.
So does this make the controversial comment made by Warren Gatland in 2009 all the more bewildering? In his role as Wales head coach before Ireland's Grand Slam decider that year in Cardiff, Gatland claimed that it was "Ireland who the Welsh players probably dislike the most". The fact is the Irish and Welsh players play each other so often between Six Nations, Heineken Cup and PRO12 games that their clashes are beginning to have a derby feel. And no one wants to lose a derby game.
Of course, the Ryder Cup is another event which sees us play on the same team as other European countries. But that runs over one weekend. And despite the foursomes, golf is still an individual sport. However, the Lions tour is an odyssey to the southern hemisphere. Touring over a six-week period, players and fans really get to know each other, depend on one another and support one another.
Most of all, the Lions tour is fantasy rugby – the best of the best of these nations' players playing with each other. One of the biggest cheers on Saturday night was for the sight of Wales winger George North throwing Australian Israel Folau over his back like a sack of potatoes and surging up the field. It had everyone off their feet. It was soon after that that 'Swing Low, Sweet Chariot' rang out. And once again, we were humming to the same tune.
Sinead Kissane is a sports reporter and presenter at TV3