The first Lions tour of the pro era produced one of the great upsets as world champions South Africa were stunned on home turf. A new book relives those extraordinary events
Conquering Everest – the new book about the heroic Lions of 1997
There have been six previous British & Irish Lions tours in the pro era. If you were to rate them in order of significance, there could only be one winner – the 1997 trip to South Africa.
That tour is the subject of a brilliant new book, This Is Your Everest, co-written by Tom English and Peter Burns for leading sports publishers Polaris.
As the first Lions tour undertaken since the fall of amateurism, there was – incredible to think – a faction who felt the Lions no longer warranted a place amid the fulsome diet of domestic, European and international fixtures.
Thus in some ways the 35-man squad that travelled south under the stewardship of Ian McGeechan, Jim Telfer and Fran Cotton were playing for the Lions’ very existence.
Political horse-trading had compromised the Lions in 1993 and head coach McGeechan wasn’t prepared to allow that to happen again. He accepted the job on the condition that he, assistant coach Telfer and team manager Cotton would have sole charge of selection.
The squad they chose was full of surprises, even before you factor in the presence of six former rugby league players to help imbue professional standards.
For example, they ended up with three English scrum-halves on tour yet not one of them was England’s starting nine, Andy Gomarsall, from the 1997 Five Nations. They took two English centres yet left behind England’s championship midfield duo, Will Carling and Phil de Glanville.
They took the third-choice Wales hooker, Barry Williams, and a Scottish prop, Tom Smith, who 18 months earlier had been turning out for Dundee HSFP’s second team.
Skipper Martin Johnson admits he didn’t know Smith from a hole in the head before the tour. But then he himself, although an established international player, raised eyebrows because he had never captained a Test team. Cotton had rung Johnson’s mum for a character reference.
Up against them were the reigning world champions. South Africa had the confidence borne of their natural self-belief and a decent winning run, yet the cracks were there.
The Springboks were on their fifth head coach of the decade in Carel du Plessis – the previous incumbent, Andre Markgraaff, had resigned after being secretly recorded making racist comments. Du Plessis had been a world-class wing but had never been a head coach at any level. Many of his players were left bored and confused by his messages.
Unequal pay was another thorn in South Africa’s side because the players who had won the World Cup in 1995 were on giant salaries while newcomers were getting peanuts in comparison. The likes of Henry Honiball, André Venter and Gary Teichmann – the captain – justifiably felt aggrieved. Honiball said he could earn more money just sitting on his farm.
McGeechan likened the tour to playing ten Five Nations matches and three World Cup finals in the space of eight weeks. He also convinced his players that there would be no easy period in a game, let alone an easy game.
This was a time before Twitter and camera phones, before you could jump on the Internet to look things up. The players lived in a bubble and their lives became the world of pain inflicted on them by Telfer in his infamous marathon scrum sessions or with his broom handle if they moved too high in ruck drills.
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Hooker Keith Wood, who finished the second Test in agony with a torn groin, says that the players weren’t actually fit enough to cope with what Telfer demanded – they pushed themselves beyond their limitations.
The book is chock-full of fascinating insights from both camps, the authors adopting that part first-person chatty style that is the hallmark of many a Polaris sports publication.
The tour is famous not just because the Lions, huge underdogs, achieved a near miraculous series victory. It is synonymous with Living With Lions, a tour video watched by scores of players and fans in the subsequent decades and described by ex-Liverpool and England footballer Jamie Carragher as the best sports documentary he has ever seen.
The film makers paid £30,000 for the rights and expected the BBC or ITV to jump in with funding. When they were told, ‘Sorry, the Lions will lose and no one will be interested’, director/producer Clive Rees remortgaged his house to keep the project alive.
They put microphones on ‘Geech’ and Telfer every day, they gave video cams to players – “It was like giving lunatics machine guns!” said prop Graham Rowntree.
A critical moment arrived on the day of the first game against Eastern Province, when Jason Leonard asked the film makers to leave the changing room as the Lions psyched themselves up. A hasty conversation with Cotton ensued and they were allowed to stay.
Living With Lions enthused a generation and the title of Polaris’s book, This Is Your Everest, alludes to a legendary speech from the video that Telfer made on the day of the first Test at Newlands. “I think I’ve watched that speech alone a hundred times,” says Kyle Sinckler, who gave renditions of it to team-mates on the 2017 tour. Watch Telfer’s Everest speech below.
The book takes readers through the tour match by match, and how satisfying it is that the more the South Africans dismissed the Lions as soft or “pussy cats”, the more the Lions rammed such sentiments back down their throats.
Apart from the dead rubber of the third Test, when the Lions were depleted because of injuries and illness, the tourists lost just once: 35-30 to the Blue Bulls (Northern Transvaal).
Outside of the Tests, there were few bumps performance wise – the scrum against Western Province was one, which prompted Telfer’s wrath – and the Lions racked up some big scores with their fluid, high-tempo, handling game.
Many of you will be familiar with the major incidents that peppered their progress. The disgusting kick by Marius Bosman that ended Doddie Weir’s tour in the match against Mpumalanga Pumas.
The shoulder injury against Natal Sharks that brought Rob Howley such sorrow.
The frightening moment when Will Greenwood swallowed his tongue against Orange Free State in Bloemfontein and Leonard had to stop Greenwood’s panic-stricken mum running onto the pitch while he was being treated.
The Test series was one for the ages. The fear was that the Lions would be obliterated in the set-piece and have no platform to work off. The contrast in size was highlighted by the two looseheads: world champion Os du Randt, 6ft 3in and 22st, versus four-cap newbie Tom Smith, 5ft 10in and only a shade over 15st.
The opening minutes at Newlands seemed to confirm those fears as the Lions were sent shuddering backwards in the first few scrums. But Smith, Wood and Paul Wallace steadied the ship, winning the technical battle. At times Wallace scrummaged with his nose almost on the floor but he kept his feet. And the Lions stayed in the fight.
Matt Dawson reckons the try he scored with six minutes remaining came partly because the Boks didn’t know who he was – they just didn’t consider him a threat. When Alan Tait then crossed the line too, his gran was passing the Black Swan pub in Kelso as it happened and she heard a huge roar. “She said she thought the roof was going to blow away,” Tait says.
The two tries, and the seismic 25-16 victory it brought, are among McGeechan’s happiest moments. “Sport can touch your soul,” says Sir Ian. “When you slow down some action and out of all the physicality comes a piece of sublime skill and balance within a physical context, there is a beauty about it.”
There was more unbearable drama and tension to come in the second Test, of course. The Boks had contributed mightily to their first-Test downfall through their malfunctioning lineout and errant kicking, three times putting the ball out on the full.
In Durban, they scored three tries to none but missed six out of six kicks off the tee. In contrast, Neil Jenkins, who had only just made the tour after breaking his arm against England, landed five penalties and Jerry Guscott applied the coup de grâce with his late drop-goal. Austin Healey says he would have had a clear run to the line had Guscott passed and he was shouting “You greedy bastard!” as the Bath star delivered the series-clinching kick.
That is the bare bones of it but it’s the delicious detail that you will love in the book, like the fact that even today Stuart Hogg likes to mimic Telfer’s reaction to a break that Gregor Townsend made in the match that ended with him turning over possession. “No, no, Gregor, you’re wrong, you’re wrong, man!”
Teichmann says the Boks deserved to win the second Test by 20 points and that it wasn’t a strong Lions team. A degree of arrogance undermined them throughout. When they hammered Tonga 74-10 in a warm-up game, Teichmann had said it wasn’t ideal preparation but that “we weren’t overly concerned – we were playing the Lions, not the All Blacks”.
When Joost van der Westhuizen was asked to pay tribute to the Lions over the PA system at the end of the Boks’ 35-16 win in the third Test, he said, “Ja, well, we wanted to give them a klap [slap] and I’m pleased we did that today.” The Lions fans booed.The Lions won because of heart and desire, because they were more united. They won because of a tactical edge, as in the way they negated Honiball’s threat by targeting the support runners around him. They won because of selection, such as accommodating fly-half Jenkins at full-back due to his peerless goalkicking. And when they needed luck they got it.
You feel South Africa never really gave the Lions the respect they deserved, that they view the series result as a freak aberration. The scars ran deep. John Smit and Bryan Habana have both spoken about avenging 1997 as a powerful motivation for the Boks that were next to have a crack at the Lions in 2009.
Tragedy and misfortune has befallen many of the participants from 24 years ago. Van der Westhuizen (MND), Ruben Kruger (brain cancer) and James Small (heart attack) all died far, far too young. André Venter was left paralysed by a condition called transverse myelitis. Weir and Smith are waging similar poignant health battles.
Du Plessis, now fighting cancer, was replaced soon after the 1997 series by Nick Mallett, who many felt should have had the job ahead of him.
There are powerful words from many of those involved. The contribution of Tim Rodber, the midweek captain, is particularly compelling. Some players lost their way a bit, like Williams, John Bentley, Eric Miller. “I’d hoped to go in 2001 and 2005 but it didn’t flow like that,” says Miller, who was 21 at the time. “Every four years I go through a period of mourning.”
And as for the tour video, with its heartbreaking scenes of injured players discovering their tour was over and the industrial language of the changing room (Wood swore 30 times in 34 seconds in one edited speech), Rory Best hits the nail on the end.
“It was probably the first time that people got an insight into what it was like on tour. You’ll never get another rugby film like it,” says the former Ireland and Lions hooker.
“Nowadays if that happened you’d get players behaving differently in front of the camera. They’d either be guarded because of what social media would do to them or they’d play up to the camera. It wouldn’t be natural, whereas in 1997 it was almost innocent.
“We’re used to cameras being everywhere now but those guys weren’t. That tour was a major influence on a lot of international players that came after. Everybody’s watched that film.”
This Is Your Everest by Tom English and Peter Burns is published by Polaris, RRP £17.99.
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