Players, fans unite behind the Lions

June 19, 2009

RUGBY-LIONS/All professional sportsmen talk about how important their supporters are but when it comes to the British and Irish Lions there really is a special bond.

Defying the credit crunch, up to 30,000 fans are expected to travel to South Africa to follow the Lions in their three-test series against the world champions.

Those fans, who spend most of their time in opposition as they follow England, Wales, Scotland or Ireland, are, like the players, united in one cause for a few weeks every four years.

They are united in colours too, as the red shirt of the Lions — which adidas say will be by far their biggest seller of the year — is everywhere.

The players appreciate the efforts made by the supporters and, unlike in most other modern professional sports, are not afraid to mingle with them.

Most of the Lions were out and about on Thursday and Friday, signing autographs, posing for photographs and, get this footballers, actually chatting about the sport they share a passion for.

When a police car slowed down as it approached a knot of fans surrounding Wales centre Jamie Roberts on Thursday it was merely to shout “what will the score be?” followed by a dismissive laugh when the fans suggested a 3-0 sweep for the tourists.

Hotels, food outlets and particularly bar owners are delighted to have the red army in town, and Lions forwards coach Warren Gatland, who knows a thing or two about rugby fanatics as a New Zealand hooker, is similarly appreciative.

“It is an honour and a privilege to be a part of the Lions and seeing the fans all around the town really brings that home,” Gatland said on Friday.

Lions and England prop Phil Vickery agreed. “It’s different and it’s special, though it’s still hard to get used to Welshmen, Irishmen and Scotsmen shaking my hand and wishing me good luck,” he said.

“But the whole thing is good for rugby and good for South Africa. It really is a showpiece for the game.”

PHOTO: British and Irish Lions players Adam Jones and Alun Wyn Jones play in the Indian Ocean ahead of the first test in Durban, June 18, 2009. REUTERS/Rogan Ward

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