Tom English selects the best encounters between the Springboks and the British & Irish tourists throughout history
Top Ten South Africa v Lions Tests
The British & Irish Lions 2021 tour is the 14th to the land of the Springbok. It’s not a Lions tour as we know it, but it’s a tour nonetheless.
It’s been 130 years since the first expedition from these shores to South Africa. There have been 46 Tests between the Springboks and the Lions in that time and here we pick a top ten packed with class and controversy, glory and brutality.
Top Ten South Africa v Lions Tests
10. Birdie Partridge, 1903
They travelled under the guise of a British team – the Lions tag would come later – and they travelled as favourites. In their two previous visits to South Africa the tourists had played 41 games and had won 39 of them, drawing one and losing one.
Things were changing, though. South Africa in 1903 drew the opening two Tests. In the decisive third they won 8-0 with Willie McEwan from Edinburgh and Alex Frew from Ayshire in their ranks. They also had the splendidly named Birdie Partridge in their pack along with Klondyke Raaff and Uncle Dobbin.
Frankly, with names like that, they deserved their famous win and their first-ever series victory over the foreigners who would later be called the Lions. This huge event deserves its place on the list.
9. The Great Dictator, 1924
The 1924 Lions didn’t win any of the four Tests, losing three and drawing one – and the second Test was a particularly sobering affair at Wanderers ground in Johannesburg.
It was Bennie Osler’s second cap and the Great Dictator, as he came to be known, utterly ran the show. The hosts scored four tries and won 17-0, an absolute drubbing in those days. Local newspapers described it as the “perfect game of rugby football”.
The 17-point winning margin remained the largest in a Test between the sides until 1962. Osler’s magic was too much for the tourists. His game management with the boot was magnificent. He had unerring accuracy, toying with the visitors and putting his team on the front foot pretty much from first minute to last.
8. What Might Have Been, 1962
The Lions had drawn the first Test 3-3 and so the show moved on to Durban for the second Test. This one makes the list not because it was an especially great game – South Africa won it 3-0 – but because of the controversy at the heart of it.
“In the second Test we put the Springboks over the line from a scrum, there is no question in my mind that the ball was over the line and that Keith Rowlands scored,” said Irish prop Syd Millar.
“The Springboks actually turned to go under the posts and the referee called them back and said, ‘I was unsighted’. Danie Craven said afterwards that everybody in the ground except the referee saw the try.”
Billy Mulcahy, the Irish lock, was convinced that the try should have been awarded. “The press photographers with their zoom lenses had the clearest picture of the ball over the white line and then the ref found a reason not to give it.”
It was the key moment in the Test and in the series, which South Africa went on to win 3-0.
7. The Record Breaker, 1955
An absolute classic in front of a then world-record crowd of 95,000 people at Ellis Park.
In the first Test, the Lions trailed 11-8 at half-time, then lost a man through injury early in the second half. Down in numbers, the Lions hit another level.
The great Clem Thomas scythed his way through for a try, then Tony O’Reilly, the charismatic, free-scoring wing deified by the locals, set up Jim Greenwood for another, and then O’Reilly scored himself.
The visitors led 23-11, but back came the Boks. The hosts scored 11 points on the bounce and had a conversion to win it at the end. Jack van der Schyff stepped up – and missed.
The series was drawn 2-2, but the boys of ‘55 will never be forgotten.
6. Fergus Slattery Remembers, 1974
Already 3-0 up and going for a 4-0 clean sweep in the Tests, the most talked-about incident in the fourth game was the moment when Fergus Slattery appeared to score, but the try was ruled out. It ended in a 13-13 draw.
The no-nonsense Slattery calls it straight. “I put the ball down on the ground but I didn’t score because the referee didn’t award it,” he said. “The referee didn’t see it and to be fair the result was correct because Roger Uttley was awarded a try in the first half and it wasn’t a try. He never got his hand on the ball.
“The problem with the fourth Test was that on the Tuesday I saw that all the guys had packed their bags and had completely switched off. That’s a big mistake and we made it. We went into that Test ready to tick box 22 having won 21. The guys weren’t really thinking about it.
“You play an International match and the closer you get to it the more you commit mentally to it. You have to be 100% mentally attuned when that whistle goes whereas we would have been ten, 20, 30, 40%. It was a mental thing not a physical thing.”
5. The Magic of Phil Bennett, 1974
On the massively controversial tour in 1974, the Lions had already won the first Test – “we threw a grenade into South African rugby,” said Gareth Edwards – before playing on the rock-hard surface of Pretoria in the second.
They put on a stunning display of forward belligerence and back-line excellence. The 28-9 scoreline was, up to that point, the heaviest defeat the Springboks had ever suffered.
JJ Williams, the pacy, side-stepping wonder, was electrifying and scored twice. Phil Bennett’s display was just majestic. Gareth Edwards was Gareth Edwards – a genius. Bennett, Gordon Brown and Dick Milliken brought the try count to five. Even Ian McGeechan got in on the act with a drop-goal.
The Boks were stunned. People of a certain age in South Africa still talk about the brilliance of the performance to this day.
4. Matt Dawson’s Dummy, 1997
The Bok pack was supposed to annihilate the Lions. The hosts were man-mountains up front – Os du Randt, Naka Drotske and Adrian Garvey having a massive weight and height advantage over Tom Smith, Keith Wood and Paul Wallace.
The first couple of scrums were devastating for the Lions but they worked things out and the Lions front row were heroic. They were still trailing with time running out, though.
Enter a relatively unknown Matt Dawson with a break off the back of a scrum, a dummied pass that everybody inside the stadium bought and a stroll to the line.
It was one of the great Lions tries and one of the great Lions triumphs. Alan Tait sealed a stunning victory late on.
3. Morné Steyn’s Howitzer, 2009
A thriller. The Lion were 1-0 down in the series despite having played some stupendous stuff in the first Test. They were magnificent in the first half of the second Test as well. They led 15-3 and 19-8.
They lost Gethin Jenkins and Adam Jones through injury. They lost Jamie Roberts and Brian O’Driscoll also through injury.
Schalk Burger saw yellow instead of the red he clearly deserved for gouging Luke Fitzgerald. Springbok coach, Peter de Villiers, later said it wasn’t even a yellow, a comment that sparked outrage. “A disgrace…despicable…mindboggling,” was O’Driscoll’s response.
The Boks loomed large when a concussed Ronan O’Gara missed a tackle on Jaque Fourie, who scored in the corner.
Later, with the scores level at 25-25, O’Gara took Fourie du Preez in the air and Morné Steyn banged over the winning penalty from 54m out. Dramatic.
2. Guscott’s Drop for Glory, 1997
The Boks were hell bent on revenge in the second Test, scored three tries to nil – and still lost. They missed six kicks at goal from three different kickers, Henry Honiball, Percy Montgomery and André Joubert. It was a glaring chance to level the series and they blew it.
The Lions stayed alive thanks to poor Bok discipline and the magic boot of Neil Jenkins. The endgame was spectacular. The Lions launched themselves downfield with a big punt from Keith Wood. The composure thereafter was outstanding, culminating with Jeremy Guscott’s ice-cool drop-goal to win the Test and the series. One of the most iconic moments in Lions history.
“As the ball drifted towards me through the arc of the floodlights everything seemed to happen in slow motion,” said Guscott. “I prayed it wouldn’t miss. I prayed it wouldn’t be charged down. The sense of elation I felt when I eventually looked up and saw the ball soar between the posts will stay with me forever.”
1. The Battle of Boet Erasmus, 1974
The third Test in Port Elizabeth was a mixture of magnificent Lions rugby and rampant thuggery. Fights broke out left, right and centre as the Boks, having made ten changes from the first Test, battled to save their reputation – and the series. They brought in a No 8 to play scrum-half in an attempt to outmuscle the tourists.
They failed. JJ Williams became the first Lion in a century to score two tries in a Test the week before. Then he did it again.
The supposed ‘99’ call was born in this game. The carnage was remarkable – as was the physical onslaught of the Boks in the beginning. They unleashed hell on the Lions and the Lions just about survived and then kicked on to win handsomely, 26-9.
It was the first time the Lions won a series in South Africa in 78 years. “Your Lions have devoured us from start to finish,” said Bok captain Hannes Marais.
What do you think is the greatest Test between the Lions and the Springboks? What are your standout memories of these series? Let us know by emailing email@example.com or get in touch via social media.
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