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There's a party in the Park, Ellis Park

Super Rugby
JOHANNESBURG - Doornfontein is the destination. It is an old suburb, almost as old as Johannesburg, and it shows.

Once a residential area of opulence, it is now a light industrial park. On it’s south side, away from Albertina Sisulu Road, past Jeppe Police Station, rows of saw-tooth roofs rise up from factory floors - tan and red-bricked buildings presently faded by years of labour. 

Toil and exertion are ingrained in every nook and cranny there, grime diffused into the cement, grease filling the gaps, filth evening out the creases. It is clean, in a dirty kind of way, the municipality trying its best to keep a facade of a sterile environment but unable to undo the muck of a city home to some 4.4 million people, or the faint flavour of urine that clings to the air.

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Going northward, Doornfontein ascends into the inner-city sprawl, blocked off by a University of Johannesburg campus and is so squashed between the overlooking Observatory and a railway line cutting its way to Park Station to the west. And yet thousands of people frequent this neighbourhood, for at its centre, rising, a hulking figure, stands Ellis Park - a monolith of modernist concrete, a temple of function over form.

In the dark days, during the Noughties, when the Lions were down and out in Super Rugby and the Currie Cup, it’s red innards lay bare, a carcass split at the seams, steel ribs flayed open to reveal a dead mass. Only the brave, the foolhardy and the hardcore supporters would make the trip into that morass then, leaving the stadium speckled with die-hard fans more hoping than knowing victory would come.

Things have changed since then. Efforts pertaining to the 2010 Fifa World Cup uplifted the area, while the rugby gods saw it fit to turn the wheel of fortune and resurrect the Lions and Fort Ellis.

My crew is privileged to have seen this transformation live from the comforts of the Touchdown Restaurant, which dominates the south stands, since 2004.

You will recall the coaching tenure of former Springbok Chester Williams in those days and his two victories from 22 matches in the Super 12, or the disaster that was Dick Muir who failed to win a game when he was in charge. During his stay in 2010, there was the remarkable 72-65 loss to the Chiefs, still the highest aggregate score in Super Rugby.

When John Mitchell stood up to take over, he secured a Currie Cup in 2011 but could do little else to stop the humiliation in Super Rugby. During the lean years, from 2006 - when the unholy amalgamation that was the Cats was sundered - up until the end of the 2012 season, the Lions won 19 and drew two games out of 74 matches. Then came 2013 and the ignominy of relegation from the inter-continental tournament, only for the team to be reinstated a year later.

With all this to consider, it should surprise you then, that the Lions have not lost at Ellis Park in Super Rugby since last year when they came undone 50-17 against the eventual champions, the Hurricanes, on Matchday 10. It is an eight game unbeaten run that is easily eclipsed by their Currie Cup record - in that competition their last loss at their fabled homeground was on September 27, 2013, when they were defeated by the Sharks 31-25.

That was coach Johan Ackermann’s first year in charge, and since his assuming the reigns of the union, he has won 29 Super Rugby games out of 50, and has taken the Lions to the Super Rugby final and won the Currie Cup.

Tomorrow, Doornfontein is the destination.

We go to watch the Lions, hopefully, keep their record intact against the Sharks. The squad goals will be a bit different because we will also be there to bid ‘farewell’ to a close mate, who is taking the marital plunge, in spite of all the advice (If it catches your fancy, we will be in the lower west stand). We go because Warren Whiteley and his team need Johannesburg to show their support against the unruly and large mass of Sharks supporters who make the journey to Ellis Park and wave their black and white flags. 

We go to show our appreciation for Ackermann and Co for doing a grand job, knowing that he might not be the Lions coach for much longer. But mostly, we go to soak up the atmosphere of a winning Ellis Park, to give it a beating heart, to shout, to scream, to swear, to dance, to celebrate, even to lose. Already 35 000 other people are going with us.

Doornfontein should be your destination, too.

The Star

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