by Walter Lawler
The 2021 British and Irish Lions Tour will take place in July and early August. It effectively begins with a warm-up challenge v Japan in Murrayfield, Edinburgh on 26th June and will conclude with a Third Test v Springboks at Ellis Park, Johannesburg, on Saturday 7th August. The Lions tours have taken place since the initial tour to New Zealand and Australia in 1888. They take place against the Southern Hemisphere ‘big three’ of New Zealand, South Africa and Australia. In recent times, every 4 years playing each country in sequence, thus the last Tour to South Africa took place 12 years ago in 2009. Every Lions Tour brings its own challenge in bringing together the best talent of Ireland, Wales, Scotland and England to tour one of the Southern Hemisphere countries. While all come together to form one team, it’s common practice for each nation to feel aggrieved at certain players not being picked to Tour or make the Test side. In 2013 Brian O’Driscoll being dropped for the decisive final game against Australia by Warren Gatland caused a sensation in Ireland. As I write Johnny Sexton, Gary Ringrose and James Ryan have failed to make the touring party and their omission has been the subject of several rugby newspaper column inches and social media discourse. The success of a Lions squad often depends on the breaking down of national interests and cliques to form a homogenous unit from the two islands. This is usually the result of good management and captaincy. It is important that all players feel they have a chance of making the first team and that the midweek teams that play provincial sides the so called ‘dirt trackers’ are fully part of the Lions experience. Often when left to their own devices, and when these players do not feel fully respected, a Lions team falls apart due to a lack of common esprit de corps. This year’s Lions have one serious advantage in that most of the players have played 2 Six Nations Competitions, European Cups, Pro 14 action and domestic club events while the South African’s have been idle as a nation since their World Cup win in November 2019. The first British and Irish Lions Tour to South Africa took place in 1896. The British Isles XV won the Test series 3–1 and completed the 17-game provincial program unbeaten, scoring 204 points and conceding just 45 in all matches. Over the years and various Tours, the two teams have played 46 matches; South Africa have won 23 times to the Lions’ 17, with the remaining six matches finishing as draws. The Lions matches v South Africa have transcended sport into the realm of politics on occasions due to the racial discriminatory policy of Apartheid adopted by South African governments in the 20th century. For this article I will concentrate on two of the most memorable tours, 1974 and 1997 along with the most recent tour in 2009. Irish involvement was key in all these tours also. However, throughout this piece I’ve tried to avoid naming each player as English, Welsh, Scottish or Irishmen, for the most part, rather focusing on all as Lions.
1974: Legendary Lions:
This side became known as ‘McBride’s Invincibles’ after their Irish captain Willie John McBride and the fact they remained unbeaten on Tour, winning 21 and drawing 1 of their 22 games. It was possibly the most controversial and explosive Tour in rugby history both on and off the field. The Lions had been soundly beaten 3-0 in their tests against South Africa on the 1967 tour. However, the fortunes of the Lions were on the up after a series win in New Zealand in 1971. The talent available to the Home Nations was unparalleled, Wales were in the middle of a decade of dominance. Irish rugby was in a good position too and they were the current 5 Nations champions as the Lions squad set off for hard grounds and high veldt of South Africa. The South African ‘Springbok’ team was an all-white team which represented the suppression, segregation, abuse and exploitation black South Africans suffered under the Apartheid regime of that era. During the 1960s and 1970s there was increasing international condemnation of repressive racist governments worldwide, as people fought globally for civil rights for oppressed peoples. Sport could no longer hide behind a veil of being separate from moral issues of equality and race. Peter Hain, (now Lord Hain) a UK MP was a key anti-Apartheid protestor at the time. He felt that sport was the soft underbelly of the South African government and her policies and should be boycotted. Hain was particularly critical of Willie John McBride and stated he couldn’t understand how the latter could totally divorce all moral concerns about racism from sport. McBride countered that in 1974 the Troubles were at their height in Northern Ireland, which was in political turmoil, he felt rugby was a unifying force. He also said that if rugby in Ireland became involved in politics Ireland wouldn’t have a rugby team. Welsh player, John Taylor, refused to travel with the Lions in 1974 having witnessed first-hand the oppressive, racist regime when touring with the Lions in 1967. When confronted with growing protests the Irish Government agreed with their British counterparts that the Tour should be cancelled. Harold Wilson, the British Prime Minister was strongly of this opinion. However, the Tour went ahead. For the most part, the young men who went on the Tour were aware of the bigger issues, however, they put their desires to play at the highest level of their sport against very strong opponents before any reservations they had. Which, I suppose is ultimately selfish, in hindsight, if understandable.
The Lions Tour comprised of 18 games against provincial opposition and 4 Test Matches against South Africa. Lions coach, Irish man Syd Millar had played with Willie John McBride in South Africa in 1967 when their pack had been destroyed by the power of the opposition forwards. A key cornerstone of success this time around would be the building of a coherent solid scrum. In games such as against Eastern Province in Port Elizabeth The Lions showed that they would not be bullied up front. This message was clearly sent out after the first 7 games as the first Test approached. The Lions had a adopted a ‘one in all in’ policy when faced with physical intimidation, this was made famous, or infamous, with the ‘99’ call which summoned all players to the fray. In McBride’s words if the South Africans were to resort to foul play then the Lions decided ‘to get their retaliation in first.’ To paint the Lions as just a team concerned with physicality would be to do them a great disservice. Up to then no Lions team scored more points or tries than they did over the Tour. The team boasted talent like Gareth Edwards at scrum half, Phil Bennett at outhalf, JPR Williams at full back, JJ Williams at centre or wing, Mike Gibson and Ian McGeechan, Dick Milliken also contributing over the Tour. In the forwards were players of the calibre of McBride, Fran Cotton, Roger Uttley, Bobby Windsor and Fergus Slattery. The 1974 Tour included a game against ‘The Proteas’ an all-black side. It was a token gesture and window dressing of the highest order by the SA Rugby Union. Many black players refused to play for the team, rather than participate in such government legislated games. The Lions won the first test at Newlands 12-3. Their scores coming from 3 Bennett penalties and an Edwards drop goal. The ‘Boks were taken aback at the visitors’ dominance and made 7 changes to their side for the second Test, showing a level of panic. This test was at altitude at Loftus Versfeld Stadium in Pretoria. Throughout most games played here South Africa have an advantage as they are more used to the altitude and the difference it makes to players physiologically and, also, in how the ball travels. The ground was rock hard for this game too. The Lions controlled the game throughout. They scored a brace of tries through JJ Williams, and one each from Milliken, Brown and Bennett. They won on a score line of 28-9, which up to that point was the heaviest defeat in Springbok history. Constant movement during the Lions Tour of 1974 meant the Lions and their Springbok opposition didn’t get to mix socially. Springboks like winger Peter Whipp, had a less than favourable impression of their mighty foes. In 2009, 35 years later and just before that year’s Tour, Whipp described the 1974 Lions as ‘arrogant’, he did qualify this by saying they were a very talented group who had a lot to be arrogant about! Even though the Lions Tour itinerary was strictly controlled, the players could see the effects of the Apartheid regime on the country. There was no hiding the poverty in the townships and conditions under which the native people lived. At Provincial and Test matches the Lions most vocal support came from black South Africans who loved nothing better than seeing the Springboks, the very symbol of their oppressors, humiliated.
Following the humiliation of Pretoria, the Springbok selectors made drastic changes, keeping only five players from the previous match in the starting line-up. One of the most bizarre changes, however, involved bringing in Free State loose forward Gerrie Sonnekus to play out of position at scrumhalf, a move which would have disastrous consequences. In the opening half-hour, the Springboks produced their best rugby of the series so far, and the desperation with which they played prompted Lions centre Dick Milliken to reflect years later that he had ‘never experienced such intensity on a rugby pitch’. The occasion was marred by outbreaks of violence, such that the match has since been dubbed the ‘Battle of Boet Erasmus’. Despite the Springboks having the better of most of the first half, they still went into the main break down 7-3 after Gordon Brown snatched the ball from a lineout and crashed over the line in injury time. After the initial onslaught, the Lions regrouped and as the Springboks began to tire, they took complete control in the second half. As the forwards began to assert themselves, the backs were able to launch attack after attack on the Springbok line. Winger J. J. Williams scored two superb tries; the first came from a brilliant one-two pass combination with J.P.R. Williams, and the second was the result of a brilliant kick-and-chase. At the end of the match, Lions captain McBride was carried off on the shoulders of Bobby Windsor and Gordon Brown. It was the first time since 1896 that the British Isles had won a series in South Africa, and the first time since 1910 that a touring side had beaten the Springboks at Boet Erasmus stadium. The Lions had now been on Tour for 3 months and had won 21 out of 21 games with just one fourth and final Test match with the ‘Boks remaining. All players bar the test team had now gone home. Fergus Slattery later remarked that by this final game many of the players had mentally packed their bags for home after a long and grueling Tour. However, they still wanted to preserve their unbeaten record. The Lions would draw the final test in controversial circumstances. In the dying minutes, flanker Fergus Slattery broke through the South African line and appeared to successfully ground the ball, only for the (South African) referee to adjudge it held up; the Lions couldn’t believe it, and Slattery himself would later assert to the British newspapers that even the South African players thought that he had scored a legitimate try. Though Roger Uttley had scored a try in the first half and it wasn’t clear he grounded the ball, so in a sense both incidences balanced each other out. Another point of contention was the fact the referee blew the final whistle four minutes early with the Lions still just two metres from the South African try line. The Lions preserved their unbeaten record but didn’t record a Tour whitewash. Despite the protests pre-Tour the Lions returned as heroes, with some cabinet ministers greeting them who had strongly opposed the trip, most notably Minister for Sport Dennis Holwell. In fairness to Peter Hain MP, he stayed fast to his position, saying that the Lions Tour only promoted Apartheid and ‘perpetuated bad’.
1997: ‘Living with Lions’
The 1997 Tour was the first to South Africa post-Apartheid and also the first Tour since the game turned professional in 1995. It was only the third time that a touring side had won a test series in South Africa; the others being the 1974 Lions and the 1996 All Blacks. Fran Cotton, a former Lion, was Tour manager, the side was coached by the Scottish duo of Jim Telfer and Ian McGeechan. Again, the Lions were captained by a grizzled second row, Martin Johnson. Johnson was as hard as nails, there’s footage of him after receiving a belt to his eye against Natal Sharks, in the dressing room blood is being syringed from his eye. Johnson is telling the doctor attending to hurry up and stitch the eye as he wants to go back out on the pitch, his only concern is the score and how much time is left in the game. It is a belief held by many, to this day, that rugby teams are best captained by a member of the pack who is in the thick of the actions, rather than a back. Though there are many cases of teams being successfully captained by backs, like Ireland under Brian O’Driscoll winning the Grand Slam in 2009 for example. South Africa were reigning World Champions, having gloriously won the tournament on home soil in 1995. They were a team on the wane somewhat however, they only won 1 of 4 games in the 1996 Tri Nations. However, on home ground they would always be serious opposition for any touring side. The Tour was famous as a winning one and also the fly on the wall documentary with behind the scenes coverage ‘Living With Lions’, added further to the aura of this squad and its achievements. If ‘Flower of Scotland’ was the go-to song for players in 1974, Oasis ‘Wonderwall’ became an unofficial anthem in 1997. The Lions opened with a 39-11 win over Eastern Province on 24 May. On 28 May they beat Border 18-14. In the next game they faced Western Province in Newlands, for whom South African winger, James Small, played. The Lions triumphed 38-21, the highlight being a Leuan Evans try after being setup by Rob Howley after a scintillating break up the middle. With regards to motivational speeches the Lions were lucky to have two of the best in the business in McGeechan and Telfer (in particular). It was at this stage of the Tour that Telfer delivered his ‘Honest Man speech’ an iconic rugby moment off the pitch. It was not only a rugby and sporting talk, but a life lesson delivered. Telfer was a forceful character, a no nonsense forward for Scotland in his playing days. In many ways he was like a rugby managerial version of Alex Ferguson, with many similar characteristics. See link to speech here. Spoiler alert for some expletives! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=su9PtmpE1lI
Part of the Lions success in 1997 was down to some unique selection decisions. John Bentley had played rugby league with England for most of his career and was a recent convert to union. He was picked on the wing and was joint top try scorer on the Tour with Tony Underwood. Neil Jenkins was played at full back to utilize his goal kicking ability. This freed up the outhalf position for the creative Gregor Townsend. Tom Smith and Paul Wallace were small prop forwards given the behemoths they faced in South Africa, yet they gave Os du Randt and Adrian Garvey untold difficulties in the first two Tests. The Lions first setback on Tour came when they were beaten by Northern Transvaal 35-30 on 7th June. They got back to winning ways v Gauteng Lions, Natal Sharks and a 51-22 win over the Emerging Springboks prior to the first Test. Rob Howley was having an excellent Tour, but it was ended prematurely when he badly injured his shoulder against Natal. Prior to the first Test Telfer delivered his other masterpiece motivational speech to his forward pack, the so called ‘Everest’ speech. The pack was an excellent set of forwards, a group including, Keith Wood, Johnson, Laurence Dallaglio, Tim Rodber, Scott Quinnell, Richard Hill, Rob Wainright, Jason Leonard, Jeremy Davidson, Tom Smith and Paul Wallace. Jim Telfer ‘Everest’ speech, expletive warning! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kM0dx0h2xsw
The Lions emerged from their dressing room in Newlands, Cape Town, for the First Test and stood for the new South African National Anthem ‘Nkosi sikelel’ Afrika’ which translates as ‘God Bless Africa’. The Lions won this first test at Newlands 25–16 with Neil Jenkins kicking five penalties, and Matt Dawson and Alan Tait scoring tries. Matt Dawson threw a dummy for his score that sent 3 south Africans in the wrong direction. It was only due to Howley’s injury that Dawson started the first Test, but he certainly took his chance. While Dawson’s contribution, followed by a last gasp try from Alan Tait, ensured the Lions would run out 25-16 winners, in reality they had been under the cosh for much of the game. Tight-head prop Paul Wallace enjoyed arguably his greatest high as a player on that Tour, playing every minute of the Test as he and Tom Smith showed that technique can overcome brute strength in the scrum. This success marked these Lions out as a team to be reckoned with, the Springboks and South African fans alike had to take notice.
After the First Test the Lions played Orange Free State in what was dubbed the ‘4th Test’. The Lions won the game 52-30. The most serious incident from the game was when Lions centre Will Greenwood swallowed his tongue on the pitch after a collision and stopped breathing for several minutes. The second of the three tests were played in Durban. Despite scoring three tries in the second test at Durban, the Springboks suffered from some woeful goalkicking and failed to land any penalties or conversions, while the Lions Neil Jenkins once again kicked five penalties to level the scores at 15–15 before a Jerry Guscott drop goal for an 18–15 lead for the Lions. Joost van der Westhuizen, Percy Montgomery and Craig Joubert scored the South African tries. Jenkins value to the Lions as a reliable goal kicker saw the Lions through and regardless of what happened in the final Test the Lions had won the series. That third test on 5th July at Ellis Park, Johannesburg, proved a match too far for the Lions squad and they lost 35-16. Van der Westhuizen, Montgomery, Snyman and Rossouw scored tries for the ‘Boks with Dawson scoring a try for the Lions. At the end of the Tour the Lions had won 11 out of 13 matches with their only reversals being in the dead rubber Third Test and against Northern Transvaal. It had been a very successful Tour where players from the 4 nations were blended successfully, with many bolters like Paul Wallace, Jeremy Davidson and John Bentley making the test side. It was the last occasion on which the Lions returned victorious from a tour until the victorious tour of Australia in 2013.
2009: The Most Recent
The 2009 Tour was eagerly awaited as once again South Africa were World Champions from the most recent World Cup in 2007. Just as they will be World Champions from 2019 for this year’s Tour. Ireland had won their first Grand Slam since 1948 and the Tour selection was awaited with anticipation. Munster were reigning Heineken Cup winners from 2008, and Leinster would win the 2009 competition. Never was Irish rugby on such a high. The Lions announced a 37-man squad on 21 April 2009, there was a strong Munster contingent as they had just beaten the Ospreys convincingly in their Heineken Cup quarter final. Keith Earls, 21 was the youngest player named on the squad. Eight Irish players were initially selected, with Paul O’Connell to captain the touring squad. Before the start of the tour Tomás O’Leary, Tom Shanklin and Jerry Flannery all withdrew because of injuries and Alan Quinlan was suspended for hands around Leo Cullen’s eye area in the Munster v Leinster Heineken Cup semi-final. During the tour, Leigh Halfpenny, Stephen Ferris, Euan Murray, Lee Byrne, Adam Jones, Gethin Jenkins, Jamie Roberts and Brian O’Driscoll, as well as Ferris’ replacement Ryan Jones, were forced to withdraw from the squad due to injury. After the convoluted mess of the Clive Woodward 2005 Lions Tour to New Zealand, this was a stripped back tour that more closely resembled the 1997 triumph against the Springboks. No Alistair Campbell, PR merchants. No bloated squads or coaching tickets. No Power of Four. It was back to a more basic approach with the honourable, tried and trusted, Ian McGeechan as Head Coach. A certain Warren Gatland was forwards coach with Shaun Edwards looking after defense. Lions Tour Manager was Gerald Davies. The Lions would play 10 games, 6 against provincial teams, one against The Emerging Springboks and 3 against the Springboks themselves. At this time, I was living at home, with no SKY subscription, so I followed the provincial games as best I could through online streaming and YouTube. On consecutive Saturdays, June 20th, June 27th and July 4th I’d drive the 9 miles into Carlow town to watch the Test matches in O’Loughlin’s bar. I generally tried to make time to watch rugby matches of interest that weren’t free to air from 1995 until 2011. It was always nice to have a bit of atmosphere and be able to discuss the main points of a game. A library borrower I was friendly with at the time was Portlaoise RFC underage coach, and South African native, Saku Ngwyena. A lovely gent I had many interesting rugby conversations with at this time.
In the 35 years since the 1974 Tour, the poverty of many parts of south Africa was still all too evident. Footage of day trips to the various regions brought this stark reality home. First game up was against the Royal XV on the 30th May, the Lions won 37-25 with tries from Alu-Wyn Jones, Ronan O’Gara, Lee Byrne and Tommy Bowe. This was followed up by a 74-10 win over the Golden Lions. The Lions scraped past the Free State Cheetahs, 26-24 in their next outing, Stephen Ferris and Luke Fitzgerald were the Lions try scorers. Another easy win followed over The Natal Sharks on 10th June. On 13th June The Lions beat Western Province by 3 points. In the lead up to the First Test on 16th June the Lions beat the Southern Kings, 20-8, Ugo Moyne scoring the try. It was all going well so far, 6 wins out of 6 but the 3 Tests and game against The Emerging Springboks were to come. South Africa won the first Test in Durban 26-21. Leading 19–7 at half-time and 26–7 after 50 minutes, the Springboks had dominated the scrum, with Phil Vickery under severe pressure and replaced by Adam Jones. Other substitutions like Matthew Rees, Donnacha O’Callaghan and Martyn Williams made strong contributions. Rob Kearney came in for the injured Lee Byrne. The Lions mounted a strong comeback, scoring late tries through Tom Croft and Mike Phillips, but South Africa held on. Inside the last ten minutes of the game, the Lions had two tries disallowed by the TMO. It was later described as an ‘unbelievable’ Test match by pundits from both sides. It is noteworthy that Alun Wyn Jones, who started this test as lock, alongside Paul O’Connell, will captain this years Lions Tour, a testament to his durability and longevity. On 23rd June the Lions drew 13 all with the Emerging Springboks, Keith Earls with the Lions try.
The second Test at Loftus Versfeld in Pretoria was won by South Africa 28–25 with the last kick of the game, a penalty by Morné Steyn from inside his own half. The Lions had led 19-8 after an hour (Kearney try, Jones conversion and penalties) but tries from Bryan Habana, 63 min, and Jaque Fourie, 74 min, allowed South Africa to tie the score before Steyn’s series-winning kick. However, this is just a bare outline of an incident packed game. Rob Kearney was outstanding for The Lions at full back claiming high ball after high ball and scoring the Lions try after 7 minutes. The match was a brutal and bloody encounter. The Boks really should have had a red card just 20 seconds into the game as the returning Burger, winning his 50th cap, made clear contact with the eye area of Luke Fitzgerald. Burger received a yellow card. With Burger subsequently banned for eight weeks, the Lions were within their rights to feel aggrieved at this being only a yellow. The Lions did take advantage of Burger’s sin-bin period, scoring 10 points. Out-half Jones slotted a penalty before the confident-looking Lions made breaks through Kearney and Tommy Bowe. Amidst a feral atmosphere at Loftus Versfeld, tempers were high as Brian O’Driscoll and Victor Matfield clashed off the ball. The turnaround in the scrum from the first Test, when Tendai ‘The Beast’ Mtawarira had dominated Phil Vickery, was uplifting for the Lions. The opening minutes of the second half were as brutal as what had preceded, and the Lions’ injury toll started to mount. First, loosehead Gethin Jenkins, who had already taken a blow to the head in the first half, departing to the blood bin, was involved in a big head-on-head collision with O’Driscoll. Jenkins fractured his cheekbone in this collision, ending his tour, although O’Driscoll played on as the game flowed into the Lions’ half. Remarkably, in this same passage of play, Lions tighthead Jones was also injured as Bakkies Both connected with him at a ruck, also ending Jones’ tour. This hit from Botha was cited after the game and earned him a two-week ban, which the Boks vehemently disagreed with, going as far as to wear ‘Justice 4′ armbands in the third Test as a protest (4 being Botha’s jersey number). That protest later earned the Boks fines of more than £10,000. The Lions lost their centre partnership in the second half O’Driscoll eventually going off dazed after a head-on-head high tackle on Rossouw, Roberts went off with a wrist injury. A major reshuffle saw O’Gara on at out-half, Stephen Jones moving to inside centre, and Tommy Bowe to outside centre. The effects of the altitude in Pretoria and the physical toll of the contest seemed to kick-in for the Lions as the second half wore on. In the final 6 minutes of the game a big carry from number eight Pierre Spies left O’Gara dazed on the ground, clutching his head with what appears to be another concussion. O’Gara, who later told The Irish Times he was concussed, stumbled back to his feet and moved to fill a position in the defensive line but, unfortunately for him, the Boks managed to create an overlap wide to their right and he was called on to cover across, where he missed his tackle on Jaque Fourie. The Boks led for the first time, 25-22. O’Gara was split open over his left eye in the process of trying to stop Fourie, requiring bandaging to stop the blood, but he remained on the pitch despite the earlier blow to the head. Jones levelled the match 25 apiece with a penalty. With 79:25 on the clock, O’Gara gathered a ball from Steyn, deep in his half, after assessing his options he decided to launch a contestable kick. Shaun Edwards on the sideline was roaring at him to kick the ball out, which, in all likelihood, would have led to a draw, and a chance to draw the series by winning the Third Test. Perhaps it was the winner in O’Gara that he decided to launch a counter attack, or more than likely he was concussed and his decision making questionable. Whatever about the decision, the execution that followed was poor. Du Preez gathered the Garryowen and O’Gara tackled him in the air in the follow up. With the clock already in the red, Steyn lines up his shot from inside his own half and scored. The game was over 28-25, and the series was over for The Lions.
The Lions won the third Test on 4 July at Ellis Park in Johannesburg, beating the Springboks 28–9. Having already won the series, the Springbok squad saw 10 changes from the previous week, and the Lions also saw substantial changes. The Lions led from the start, and Shane Williams scored two tries. England lock Simon Shaw was sin-binned for striking Springboks scrumhalf Fourie du Preez with his knee in this test and received a two-week ban as a result. This was the first Test victory for the Lions in eight years, their last being in Brisbane in 2001.
As can be seen from the 3 Lions Tours covered, this fixture has developed a history of its own. Often controversial, both on and off the pitch. Sometimes containing brilliant scores and memories of individual and collective brilliance. The physicality with which the Springboks play the game means that if parity of possession and victory is to be achieved fire must be met with fire all over the pitch. While some things stay the same thankfully others are changing, South Africa won the 2019 World Cup captained for the first time by a black player, Siya Kolisi. Who knows what rugby vintage will be uncorked this Summer in South Africa?
Note: Sport and history enthusiasts will find no end of resources available through Laois Library Services. Recommendations include:
Behind the Lions: Playing Rugby for the British & Irish Lions by James Shirley, Nick Cain, and Tom English
125 Years of the British and Irish Lions: The Official History by Clem Thomas and Greg Thomas
Also, check out the huge number of FREE emagazine sport publications available through our online app ‘Libby’.