Hong Kong blog, The Lions are still special

I was at the British and Irish Lions tour opener against the Barbarians in Hong Kong at the weekend and I can definitely confirm, the Lions are still special, very, very special.

I spent the week mingling with the fans (a hard life, I know!), making a point of hearing what they thought before, during, and after the game. What was clear was that from a local perspective there were a few grumbles about their pin up hero, Rowan Varty, missing out on selection for the Baa Baa’s despite being selected against England.

They had a fair point, he was clearly a political selection so why on earth make such a gaffe by not selecting him, it also meant there were a fair few empty seats in the ground (carefully placed away from the TV cameras!) as local fans sought to display their displeasure, though ticket prices also had their part to play.

I digress though; witnessing and talking to the travelling Lions support, it was instantly obvious just what a unique environment the Lions creates. You often hear of the environment from the perspective of the team, but it is equally true of the fans.

Rugby fans are generally a friendly enough bunch but in a Lions context that is taken to another level, you could be sitting in a bar or at a restaurant or even just wandering around town, Lions fans would engage with each other instantly and hour long conversations would begin, full of tales of just how much they care about the Lions and the lengths they go to support them.

Perhaps the best was from a Lions fan that I met while ordering for my group, he explained that he had been on every professional Lions tour but that this time he did not have enough money to fly around and follow the squad as he had in the past.

Instead he had flown to Hong Kong to watch the game and would then fly onto Perth in Australia on the Sunday morning after the game. In Perth he would watch the Lions (they won 69-17 against Western Force there today) before collecting a camper van that he had bought on the Internet and will be using to travel from game to game until he flies home after the third Test.

The next game is in Brisbane on Saturday, around 4,500km away, he has roughly 72 hours to do about 48 hours of driving. That is the depth of passion the Lions create.

I arrived at Hong Kong stadium about three hours before kick off, as always, in part for work reasons but also partly because I love stadiums and there is something very special about being in these vast, empty, theatres of sport.

Again though I digress, the point is that I was early as always, and I have been early to many big sporting occasions, the stadiums are always eerily empty. Not on Saturday though, on Saturday it was a hive of activity.

So I sought out a Lions fan to see why they had come so early, naturally he was dressed as Captain Jack Sparrow only with a Lions shirt on too: “I just didn’t want to miss anything, I may only get to do this once and its just incredible to soak up all of this atmosphere.” he explained. He went on to tell me that he had been at the Olympics, at Twickenham, even at Euro ’96, but that this was the only time he had done this.

When I asked why, as a pair of Lions supporting bagpipers warmed up with God Save The Queen no less, he simply said, “It’s the Lions, they’re just…different, you know?”

The game itself was by in flash, a flurry of Lions tries and a dazzling score for the Barbarians encapsulating a game that was high on entertainment, if perhaps a little short on competition.

Schalk Brits played the part of the pantomime villain after his punch on Owen Farrell, though oddly Farrell seemed to be the man who came away with the greater criticism. Such is the spotlight that being a Lion brings.

If Brits was the villain then the heroes were the four Lions of 2009 vintage, O’Connell, Roberts, Jones and Phillips, showing the fledglings what this unique club is all about.

The final score made for happy Lions reading, 59-8, a fine start, hearty pats on the back were had all round before a gentle strumming of a guitar came across the tannoy.

Wonderwall, that famous tour song from the last Lions to win a series, in 1997.

28,643 fans, arm in arm singing in memory and praise of their last winning Lions, in hope that come 2017 they will have a new group of players to call winners.

We then had the reel of home nations songs, from Molly Malone through Swing Low and Scotland the Brave right up to Bread of Heaven and Delilah.

So to Captain Jack, you are right, I do know, they are just different. They’re different because they bring us together and unite us all to a common cause as fans in just the same way that the Lions badge unites the players to their common cause.

Let us just hope that they win, I would not want that man in his camper van to go through all of that only for more heartache.

By Angus Savage

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