The Australian sporting public, as well as the Australian Rugby Union, have fallen in love with the British & Irish Lions and their travelling army of fans, the ‘Sea of Red’.
The ARU chief executive, Bill Pulver, broke from his normal routine to tell the Australian media that the 2013 Lions tour had poured vital millions of dollars into his Union’s coffers and that attendances at the eight matches to date had been better than expected.
And with the series delicately poised at 1-1 ahead of Saturday night’s showdown at the ANZ Stadium in Sydney, more seats are being put into the 2000 Olympic Games arena to ensure nobody misses out on what is being described as the biggest rugby game in Australia since the 2003 World Cup final.
“This tour that was 12 years in the making was certainly worth waiting for. By every measure to date it has been a phenomenal success,” said Pulver.
“In the eight games we’ve seen so far in Australia 306,000 rugby fans have been in attendance. On Saturday night we are expecting somewhere between 83-84,000 spectators. We are in the process of selling out every seat in the house and that will result in a total of about 390,000 spectators across nine games for this tour.
“Back 12 years ago we had 10 games on the tour and there was a total of 300,000 fans so we already expecting approximately 30 per cent growth on game attendance numbers. By any measure that is an outstanding result.
“From a broadcasting perspective it has been equally successful and we are delighted with our two broadcast partners, Fox Sports and the Ten Network. Game one recorded almost 1.7m viewers in total, Game 2 almost 1.6m viewers and we are expecting, with a blockbusting finale on Saturday night, to getting close to 2m viewers.
“That would put the TV ratings result up there as the second largest audience we have had since the 2003 World Cup and, indeed, if we do achieve around 2m viewers for the third game that would be the largest single rugby audience since the semi-final between Australia and New Zealand in 2003. That would be an outstanding result.”
While all the figures stack up nicely for the host nation, Pulver has also been impressed by the way the tour has captured the imagination of sports fans across the country.
“In many ways the most encouraging part of this tour has been the opportunity to showcase our great game. In rugby union we are extremely proud of the unique values we have in our game – passion, integrity, discipline, respect and solidarity,” he added.
“The Lions have brought with them great tradition and great values and a great opportunity to showcase our great game. When you look at the two teams there is an enormous amount of respect between the two playing groups.
“It has been a wonderful contest over the course of the two games to date. We have just one point separating the two teams over the two Tests and there is no doubt the third Test is going to be another mighty contest.
“But more than anything, the people we have come to love more than anything are the British & Irish Lions fans. I think Australian fans have great respect for the way that they turn out day in day out in their red uniforms and a sea of red has swarmed across the major cities of Australia.
“The Lions fans – we have estimated in excess of 30,000 Lions fans touring around the country – are among the most passionate in the world and they are clearly devoted to their team. We have great respect for their vocal chords, but the good thing about it is that Australian rugby fans have managed to fight back with great passion as well.
“Australian fans have turned out in great number and they have certainly adorned themselves in gold and unlike 12 years ago I don’t think any of our players have run onto any field this year feeling that it was an away game for them.
“Every time the Lions fans erupt into song the Australian rugby fans have fought back extremely valiantly. We are delighted with that.
“Saturday night is going to be an enormous game and a fitting finale to a great series. But this is just the beginning for Australian rugby fans because we then move on to the Rugby Championship and the Bledisloe Cup.
“There is a very encouraging feeling in the Australian rugby community about the quality of the young playing group we have coming through. We are certainly hoping the Lions come back in 12 years time – the current agreement goes through the 2017 tour and we will be starting discussions imminently for a return trip.”