Goal kicks of rugby folklore
The British & Irish Lions in 2021 will be the biggest sporting event in South Africa since the 2010 Fifa Soccer World Cup. MARK KEOHANE, as part of Independent Media’s countdown to the eight-match rugby extravaganza, revisits two of the most memorable goal kicks in the history of the rivalry.
The Springboks have played the British & Irish Lions 46 times.
The Boks have won 23, lost 17 and drawn six of those Test matches. There have been 13 Test-match series, of which the Springboks have won eight and drawn one.
Very little has separated the two teams in Test matches since they first played each other in 1891.
The visitors won the first series three-nil, were again successful three-one in 1896 and finally in 1903 the Springboks took the series one-nil. South Africa would then maintain the dominance with Series wins in 1910, 1924, 1938, 1962 and 1968 before the greatest of Lions squads went unbeaten in South Africa in 1974.
In between there was the dramatic tied series (two-all) in 1955, which brings me to one of the most talked about conversion attempts in the history of the rivalry. It happened in the first Test at Ellis Park, in front of an estimated 100 000 spectators.
The official match attendance is listed as 91 000 and it remains the biggest crowd to watch a Lions Test against any nation.
Jackie van der Schyff had stunned the Lions in the tour opener against Western Transvaal with a wonderful exhibition of goal-kicking in a famous 9-6 win. It earned him a recall to the Springboks for the opening Test at Ellis Park and Van der Schyff was expected to kick the Lions to pieces. Legend was that the full-back simply didn’t miss.
In an incredible first Test match, the scoreboard was roller-coaster from the outset, with Van der Schyff prominent and influential in keeping the Springboks in the Test.
The Lions, whose South African adventure had started with two successive defeats against Western Transvaal and a 20-nil shutout against Eastern Province in Port Elizabeth, had finally started to peak in the Test series.
The first Test was a stunner. There were nine tries and the lead changed sides four times.
Tries were worth three points in 1955 and the Boks would end the first half 11-8 ahead. Injured players, forced to retire from the match, were also not allowed to be replaced, so the Test was significant for the Lions, playing most of the second half with 14 players after flank Reg Higgins couldn’t continue.
Incredibly, the Lions found a gear they hadn’t shown on the tour and, despite being a man poorer, they turned an 11-8 deficit into a 23-11 lead midway through the second half.
Van der Schyff’s goal-kicking and the brilliance of the Springboks ensured the Boks weren’t done and a try in the final minute looked certain to finish off the Lions.
The Boks trailed 22-23 and all that was needed was for Van der Schyff to slot the winning kick. Few doubted he would fail, not any South African and not any of the Lions players, seemingly defeated.
Vivian Jenkins, of the London Sunday Times, wrote: “Van der Schyff, the automaton, the robot, the kicker fantastic, who earlier in the game had put over two penalty goals and two conversions, from all angles liked a mathematician going about his work with a set square … the Gods were on the Lions’ side and the ball hooked, by a surely trembling foot, went sailing far away to the left of the uprights and the spoils were ours.”
Van der Schyff’s conversion miss would become part of Springboks rugby folklore because he had crumbled with the most important goal-kick of his Test career.
In the unforgiving world of Springbok rugby, the miss signalled the end for Van der Schyff and he would never again play for the Springboks.
Fast forward to June 27th, 2009 at Loftus Versfeld in Pretoria. The World Champion Springboks had won the first Test in Durban and were desperate to finish off the series and gain revenge for their predecessors who had failed against the Lions in 1997.
Significantly, the 102-Test veteran and 2007 World Cup-winning marksman Percy Montgomery was the Springboks’ kicking coach. Montgomery had enjoyed one of the most celebrated Test careers in becoming the first Springbok to play 100 Tests. He had kicked the Boks to many a famous win, including the 2007 World Cup final, but in his Test debut, against the Lions in Durban, he had missed three kicks that had cost the Boks victory and the series.
The Pretoria Test of 2009 was every bit as dramatic as the 1955 Ellis Park thriller.
The Lions, aided by Schalk Burger’s sending off in the first minute, were rampant in their start and maintained the dominance to lead 22-8 with just 18 minutes to play. Ruan Pienaar, usually so reliable with the boot, had done a Van der Schyff and missed two kicks he would normally have kicked with his eyes closed.
Jacques Fourie then scored one of the most fabulous individual tries to give the Springboks a glimmer of hope with six minutes to play. He squeezed the ball down with just centimetres separating the in-goal touchline. Replacement flyhalf Morne Steyn, playing at his home ground, kicked a crucial conversion and the Boks were three minutes away from a series win.
As with 1955’s Ellis Park encounter, there was more drama and Lions flyhalf Stephen Jones levelled the scores with a penalty three minutes from time.
The momentum was with the Lions but with the last play of the match, the Lions were penalised and Steyn lined up a 55m kick to win the Test and the Series.
Steyn, his boot made of granite and not putty, nailed arguably the most famous penalty in the history of the Springboks and British & Irish Lions.
* Registration for interest in tickets for the 2021 British & Irish Lions Tour to SA go to: www.lionstour2021.co.za.
British & Irish Lions in SA:
1891: British & Irish Lions won 3-0
1896: British & Irish Lions won 3-1
1903: South Africa won 1-0
1910: South Africa won 2-1
1924: South Africa won 3-0
(one Test drawn)
1938: South Africa won 2-1
1955: Series tied 2-2
1962: South Africa won 3-0
(one Test drawn)
1968: South Africa won 3-0
(one Test drawn)
1974: British & Irish Lions won 3-0
(one Test drawn)
1980: South Africa won 3-1
1997: British & Irish Lions won 2-1
2009: South Africa won 2-1