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Lions pride paints Sydney rugby-red

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(Globalpost/GlobalPost)

Sydney was coloured red on Saturday as tens of thousands of British and Irish Lions fans descended for the do-or-die third Test -- a match being hyped as the biggest in a decade.

A sell-out crowd in excess of 84,000 is expected to pack Sydney's Olympic Park stadium for the Lions series decider, with interest so intense organisers have brought in extra seats to expand the park's capacity to a new record.

It has been declared the biggest rugby contest Down Under since Australia's 2003 World Cup final against England, and Wallabies coach Robbie Deans urged fans to get out in their green and gold as a wave of Lions red engulfed the harbour city.

"It really does make a massive difference," said Deans. "That support could be what gets the Wallabies over the line."

Hundreds gathered in the city's central Martin Place plaza on Saturday morning bearing a giant Lions jersey and singing their national songs and chants, led by former Lions captain Gavin Hastings.

"What an historic occasion tonight," said Hastings, who played all three Lions Tests against Australia in 1989.

"The fans have been absolutely incredible. I think we bring out the best in the Wallabies supporters as well."

British actor Daniel Craig, the modern-day James Bond and a Lions fan, reportedly jetted into Sydney on Saturday morning to catch the blockbuster Test, which caps a nine-match series declared a major success by Australian rugby authorities.

"I think it's fair to say that 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 Australian Rugby Union chief Bill Pulver.

"I think more than anything the people we've come to love are the British and Irish Lions fans."

Some 30-40,000 British and Irish supporters are estimated to have followed the touring Lions side to Australia and tour organisers said they were out in "unbelievable force" in central Sydney on Saturday, packing the waterfront's bars under blue winter skies.

A yacht toured the world-famous harbour flying an official red team sail, and cheers of "Lions, Lions, Lions" rang out from the top of the iconic Harbour Bridge as more intrepid visitors took a bird's-eye tour of the city.

It was a redwash at Bondi beach, where kilt and clown wig-wearing tourists enjoyed a splash in the waves as bemused scarf-and-sweater clad locals looked on.

Huge crowds gathered outside the team hotel, forming a guard of honour for players as they departed for the stadium, flanked by a young bagpiper.

Pulver said the Lions supporters had turned in "day in day out" in their trademark jerseys and a "sea of red" had swarmed across Australia during the six-week series.

"The British and Irish Lions fans are among the most passionate in the world. They are clearly devoted to their team, we have great respect for their vocal cords," he said.

The Olympic Park was in full swing from the early hours, with a big screen outside the stadium screening highlights of previous Lions tours, a mammoth barbecue and 75-metre "monster bar" doing a brisk trade.

The tour is estimated to have generated some Aus$150 million (US$136 million) for the Australian economy, with hotels and retailers reporting bumper trade and city drinking holes expecting to be packed throughout the weekend.

Police were out in force for an operation codenamed after Australian rugby great John Eales, with Assistant Commissioner Max Mitchell reminding fans that rugby had a "long-standing reputation as a gentleman's game" and "all eyes will be on Australia for this match".

An audience of two million Australians is expected to watch the live broadcast of the game.

ajc/jta

http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/afp/130706/lions-pride-paints-sydney-rugby-red-0