Australia 16-41 British & Irish Lions, Sydney
Sea of red engulfs Sydney
Tom Hamilton in Sydney
July 6, 2013
The Australian Rugby Union did its best to cancel out the sea of red but even they will be powerless to prevent Sydney being engulfed by British & Irish Lions' supporters tonight.
This match had everything last week did not. There were gainline breaks, tries, sleights of hand, moments of individual brilliance and a scoreline which was weighted in the Lions' favour.
God only knows what will happen to Sydney tonight.
All week the Lions fans gradually filled up the bars in the Rocks and surrounding areas. The lack of a midweek game saw the men in red's supporters turn to alternative venues in and around the city while those who arrived in Sydney straight from Melbourne opted to spend their days sightseeing with inevitable bouts of alcoholic refreshment slotted in at every opportune moment.
The day before the game, you could not move in the Rocks for Lions fans. The bars were rammed, the ferries were packed with red shirts and the takings must have gone through the roof. But come game day, there was a sense of tension in the air. You could not have been left in doubt to the magnitude of the match.
The local newspapers which had treated the Lions tour with general apathy went big on the match with Israel Folau and James Horwill prominent on the front and back pages.
After the pre-match entertainment which featured the customary choir, the Australian pop star and the national anthem, came the kick-off. It was a moment which signified the start of a match which has been at the forefront of everyone's minds for the whole week. Matters like James Horwill's hearing, Brian O'Driscoll's axing and Robbie Deans' future were all suddenly shunned to one side.
The focus was on Jonathan Sexton as he hoisted the ball high into the Australian night in front of 83,702 passionate supporters. The gold outnumbered the red but it was the Lions fans who were more vocal in the opening exchanges. The opening notes of Waltzing Matilda heralded the start of the match but any Wallaby joy soon abated when Will Genia knocked on from Sexton's kick-off.
Despite the strong Welsh influence in the Lions' XV, the first sign of coherent, collective singing from the Lions' support was of 'Swing, Low'; memories immediately harked back to 2003 when England secured the World Cup in the very stadium the game was played tonight. But this was about the Lions. Although Gatland came in for criticism pre-match for the 10 Welsh players in the starting line-up and even though his name was booed when read out, along with Horwill's, all that was forgotten when Alex Corbisiero crashed over. It triggered pandemonium in the stands.
From that moment on, those in gold and those in red felt every tackle and what developed was a historic performance from the Lions. The Wallabies supporters near the media box resulted to petty insults which were water off a ducks back for those in red around us.
There were nervous moments when James O'Connor crashed over. But the second-half was nothing short of a procession for the Lions. When George North scored their fourth try, what followed was a mass exodus from the Wallabies' support. Those yellow hats which were handed out in an attempt to combat the sea of red were left discarded on the floor of the stands. This triggered more joy with the Lions' fans singing 'cheerio' to their opposite contingent.
Lions' support enjoy the moment © Getty Images
Few would have seen the match being this one sided. Supporters turned to one another open mouthed with a smile yet to come to fruition. It was only until about five minutes were left on the clock that people started to enjoy the occasion. The shock and the feeling of something occurring to snatch away the Lions' joy abated. Photos were taken of each other and the talk revolved around the emotions of finally witnessing the Lions burying 16 years of hurt.
It was at this time that Warren Gatland and the rest of his coaching staff strolled down to the touchline to soak in the last few moments of the match. They were thrust into the public eye having enjoyed a private moment of celebration in their coaching box.
The cameras were more interested on those seated in the stands with O'Driscoll just as much a part of this occasion as the 23 men who had played the Wallabies on the turf. There was also Sam Warburton seated there, the man who was meant to be out there leading from the front, while Paul O'Connell, so often someone who has experienced being on the losing side with the Lions, probably raised a smile.
When the full-time hooter sounded and the opening bars of Chelsea Dagger kicked in, the party started in the stands - don't expect it to end any time soon. James Horwill did his best to put a brave face on obvious disappointment while Alun-Wyn Jones emphasised the pride and joy the squad felt for coach Gatland who took a battering from all corners for his Welsh-weighted selection.
Warburton and Jones - representing both sides of the organic Lions beast , the on and off field members of the tour - hoisted the Tom Richards Cup into the air. Memories of 2001, 2005 and 2009 were a distant ugly past; the Lions will now look to the future and will go into the 2017 series in New Zealand with their heads held high.
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
Tom Hamilton is the Assistant Editor of ESPNscrum.