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Comment: How times have changed as Ulster visit 43 years on from the Lions' trip to Port Elizabeth

Adam McKendry reports from South Africa

By Adam McKendry

As you turn right out of Port Elizabeth airport and head towards the city, you pass four blue floodlights that stand proudly above the skyline.

"That's where the Test was held when the Lions visited in 1974," my taxi driver tells me, eager to share his local knowledge with a first-time visitor to South Africa.

He's right too, the once great Boet Erasmus Stadium played host to the opening Test as Willie John McBride's gallant tourists took a famous and brutal victory, made famous for the use of the '99 call'.

At the shout of the number, every Lion would deck the nearest Springbok, his theory being that the referee wouldn't send off every Lion at once. It will go down as one of McBride's greatest moments.

The stadium is derelict now, put out of business by the brand new Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium and left to the ravages of time as it has stood there, unused since 2010. By now most of the terrace is covered in thick green moss, and one of the grandstands has been knocked down completely.

All that remains are the echoes of the past.

"It's funny," my taxi driver continues with a wry smile. "Back then we were supporting the Lions - everything the Springboks did we booed them! How times have changed."

A wistful reminder of a society that is still feeling the effects of a brutal apartheid, none more so reflected in the renaming of the historic Algoa Bay that makes up most of the east of the city to that of Nelson Mandela Bay.

The run-down stadium, meanwhile, provides another stark contrast to that of the hustle and bustle Humewood area that Ulster have made their home for the week.

The small region, set to the south east of Port Elizabeth, is a tight-knit community that has grown around a long stretch of beach called King's Beach, where a road winds it way alongside the sandy shores all the way into the city centre.

Groups of friends and family will fly by sitting in the back of open-top pickup trucks, whooping and hollering at passers by while blasting music as loud as the vehicle's stereo will let them.

Local traders peddle their wares on the paths that weave up and down the coast, each willing to approach you personally to try and entice you with their beautifully hand-crafted animals and tapestries.

In the beautiful weather - blue skies and temperatures pushing into the low-30s - people stream onto and from the beach, a simply stunning length of white sand that looks resplendent in the summer sun.

Dominating the beachfront, however, is the towering Garden Court hotel - Ulster's home of operations.

Even among the various tower blocks and apartments dotted down the road, the Garden Court stands as the tallest among these concrete giants and is one of the deluxe options for accommodation.

It contains a state-of-the-art fitness centre, a top-class conference centre and one of the city's most popular restaurants in Mike's Kitchen.

Although Mike only opens his restaurant to hotel guests, dining options are not in short supply around Humewood, nor are they expensive.

Located within a minute's walk of the hotel's front desk are a McDonald's and a Nando's, while for those who wish to try a more local cuisine can frequent no fewer than three South African restaurants.

At a local bar, the Beer Shack, the average drink costs R40 - that's just over £2. An average meal will cost you R90, marginally under £5.

It's not that far short of a paradise that Ulster have set up shop in. Yet even paradise has its shortcomings.

For a place of such beauty, Humewood is not the most financially well-off area of Port Elizabeth, nor is it the safest. All houses have heavy steel gates and you're recommended to lock your door at all times.

And take the contrasting ends of King's Beach. At one end is the picturesque setting of Humewood. At the other, Port Elizabeth's ugly industrial area.

Expanded to improve ore loading at the busy port, the sight of several industrial silos, drilling machines and cranes is an eyesore on what was once the height of scenery on South Africa's eastern coast.

As are, ironically, the four blue floodlights that can be seen poking their heads up over the horizon as if to gaze upon the world that left it behind.

A once glorious pantheon of sporting achievements, the Boet Erasmus Stadium is due to be torn down soon and will be replaced by housing developments as part of a new scheme to improve the city's green belt.

That past may be consigned to the past. But this week in Port Elizabeth, Ulster aim to make more history against the Southern Kings.

Belfast Telegraph


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