Played on December 8, 1906 – four years after the Treaty of Vereeniging signed the end of the South African War – in front of a partisan 40 000 strong Crystal Palace crowd, the newly minted Springboks, led by the now almost mythical Paul Roos, took on their imperial masters for the first time in Test match rugby.
The Boks, so bruised and battered during the previous Test match against Wales – a game considered to be of far greater importance to the team – entered the encounter with major injury concerns. Indeed, they would finish the match at a disadvantage after losing Douglas Morkel.
Even so, loose forward Billy Millar scored the opening try for the South Africans but at the turn the English struck back, through Freddie Brooks OBE. The subsequent conversion, for one point in that pre-WWI period, sailed past the uprights, ensuring that the match ended 3-3. The greater narrative recorded will always be the result. But looking deeper, past the numbers, reveals greater socio-political concerns and interesting individual stories.
The Union of South Africa was still four years away, and the region revealed a fractured society still healing from the bitter divisions between master and servant, English and Afrikaans, White and Black – espoused during the brutal conflict preceded only years before.
It is no surprise then, that Roos said afterwards of the 1906/07 Tour of the British Isles and France, that it “had united us from Cape Agulhas to the Zambezi. South Africa was one, and all differences had been forgotten. Here, we are one; may it always be the same.” The words of his Afrikaans captain must have reverberated with the first Bok to score against the Old Enemy.
Millar was not a big man. Standing 1.77m tall and weighing in at 84kg, he would be nowhere near the archetypical forward that the modern game presents. Even so, Millar was a talented sportsman. During the War, he joined the Cape Colony Cycle Corps, carrying dispatches, assisting the wounded, transporting supplies and protecting the railways from Boer attacks. For his efforts he sustained a serious injury to his left shoulder that nearly ended his athletic career. To rehabilitate, he took to walking and boxing and by the time the Tour beckoned, he had become the Cape Colony’s 50km walking champion, as well as its amateur boxing heavyweight champion.
Not initially selected, he only made it into the squad due to the withdrawal of Bertie Mosenthal and would go on to play in 16 of the 29 matches. Four years later, he would become the 11th captain of the Springboks, leading the team to their first Grand Slam over the Home Unions
Brooks, the wing who scored the first English Test try against the Boks, had an even more convoluted journey to that first encounter.
Like Millar, he was an exceptional athlete and in his sporting career would represent Rhodesian cricket at Test level, hold their high jump record and become their national tennis champion. During the buildup to the Tour, Brooks represented Rhodesia in the Currie Cup and was considered unlucky not to be selected for the Boks due to reasons of ineligibility by mere weeks.
Springbok vice-captain, Paddy Carolin, convinced him to accompany the team anyway, hoping to use him as replacement at some point. While in England, Brooks played for Bedford and was selected for a North v South trial game. As a result of his performance, he was picked to play for England, running out in the all-whites against South Africa - his only rugby Test match appearance.
So it was that the first tries scored by a Bok and an England player against each other, respectively, were touring Springboks.
Tomorrow’s Test, has a similar feel as the 1906/07 Tour – one of reconciliation and rebuilding. It will be interesting to see what the record books will recall and the individual stories created. And, hopefully, Roos’ words will ring even more true: “South Africa was one, and all differences had been forgotten. Here, we are one; may it always be the same.”