The British & Irish Lions are always something pretty special
The British & Irish Lions are something pretty special. To those familiar with the history of world rugby, I know I speak to the converted when succumbing to the seductive nature of the Lions in South Africa. To those who may not be quite as versed in the significance of the Lions, next year’s eight-event rugby carnival in South Africa can’t come soon enough.
If you don’t make it to the stadiums or the fan villages, then just get in front of your television. If you love an occasion, then you are going to get eight of them. If sport is your thing, then the Lions has to be your thing.
If you embraced Soccer’s FIFA World Cup in South Africa in 2010, you are already an ambassador for the Lions visit to South Africa.
My first stadium experience of the Lions was on the 31st May, 1980 at Newlands. I’d read about the Lions, been awed by the results of the 1974 squad and had a vague recollection of seeing newspaper imagery of the men in red that looked like Wales at first glance but had different socks.
The Lions in 1980 was the first full rugby tour to South Africa that I could appreciate. I had been fortunate to watch my hero Robbie Blair kick Western Province to victory against the All Blacks at Newlands in 1976. Blair had uncharacteristically missed several penalty kicks that afternoon but he nailed the only one that mattered with a last minute touchline conversion.
I’d also got to see the 1976 All Blacks play at the old Goodwood Showgrounds against the Federation XV. I recall the excitement of those matches, but the anticipation of the Lions against the Springboks at Newlands in 1980 was a very new experience.
I was older and lived the experience so much more.
I’d also get to see two of my favourite South African rugby players combine in a national jersey, when traditionally they had been the greatest of foes playing for Western Province and Northern Transvaal respectively. I’d willed Rob Louw to chase down Naas Botha so many times and for Nasty to put the boot into any team but Western Province. Now I was cheering them on, even if my father was firmly on the side of the Lions.
I always felt there was a part of me that could never lose when the Boks played the All Blacks or the British & Irish Lions. My mom was Kiwi, of Maori heritage and my father was born in England, of Irish heritage.
I was born in Kuilsriver, Cape Town and considered myself all Springbok.
The occasion for that first Test of the 1980 series was just brilliant. There was so much class among the Springbok players. Gysie Pienaar was at fullback, Ray Mordt and Gerrie Germishuys were the wingers, David Smith and Willie du Plessis made up the midfield, Naas and Divan Serfontein were the halfbacks and (Rob) Louw combined with the incomparable Morne du Plessis (at No 8) and Theuns Stofberg. The locks were the man mountains Louis Moolman and Moaner van Heerden and the front row toughies were Martiens le Roux, Willie Kahts and Richard Prentis.
This was some team up against some team, with the visitors led by England lock Bill Beamont. Welsh No 8 Derek Quinnell was a tough bugger and back in the day there wasn’t a prop who came with a bigger reputation than the Welshman Graham Price.
Props, in the 1980s, had a cult status even bigger than those flyhalves who kicked the points.
Price was a beast.
South Africa scored five tries to one, with Ireland flyhalf Tony Ward somehow keeping the Lions in the game with five penalties and a drop goal.
Naas converted three of the tries and those six points proved significant in the 26-22 win.
I recall the physicality of the Test. It was more brutal than anything I had seen in the Currie Cup. I also remember the very mixed nature of the visiting crowd and how English, Irish, Scottish and Welsh united to cheer on the Lions.
It was also the first time I had heard the ‘LIOOOOOOONS’ scream, even though it was nothing like it has been on the most recent Lions visits to South Africa (2009), Australia four years later and, most recently, New Zealand in 2017.
The rest of the series was one I watched on television. The Boks won the second Test in Bloemfontein 26-19 and (Rob) Louw and (Gerrie) Germishuys again scored tries and Naas did his thing with the boot.
The Springboks were one Test away from winning the series and our Kuilsriver home lounge room was buzzing come the third Test in Port Elizabeth, with as much support for the visitors as for the Springboks.
My memory of that third Test is Naas Botha. He was sensational in the most challenging of weather conditions. The Lions had Ollie Campbell at flyhalf and he came with a reputation for what he had done with Ireland, but Naas schooled him at the old Boet Erasmus.
(Gerrie) Germishuys got the only Bok try, his third in three successive Tests, but it was Botha who determined a match-winning and series-clinching result with a conversion, penalty and drop goal.
Botha gave a master class in the conditions, both with his goalkicking and also his line-kicking. He was just brilliant.
The Lions edged the fourth and final Test 17-13 but with the series already secured, the defeat didn’t hurt. It was as if I wanted my old man to enjoy at least one Saturday of Test rugby between the Springboks and Lions.
The next time I’d see the Lions play the Springboks was again at Newlands. The year was 1997 and I was now a reporter and not just a supporter. The experience was very different to 1980 in every way, but it was no less magnificent. The Lions won, but hey, that’s a story for another day.
* Register for interest in tickets for the 2021 British & Irish Lions Tour at: http://www.lionstour2021.co.za/
Full 2021 tour schedule:
Saturday 3 July: British & Irish Lions v DHL Stormers – Cape Town Stadium, Cape Town
Wednesday 7 July: British & Irish Lions v SA ‘Invitational’ – Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium, Port Elizabeth
Saturday 10 July: British & Irish Lions v Cell C Sharks – Jonsson Kings Park, Durban
Wednesday 14 July: British & Irish Lions v South Africa ‘A’ – Mbombela Stadium, Nelspruit
Saturday 17 July: British & Irish Lions v Vodacom Bulls – Loftus Versfeld, Pretoria
Saturday 24 July (first Test): Springboks v British & Irish Lions – FNB Stadium, Johannesburg
Saturday 31 July (second Test): Springboks v British & Irish Lions – Cape Town Stadium, Cape Town
Saturday 7 August (third Test): Springboks v British & Irish Lions – Emirates Airline Park, Johannesburg
History | 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
* Test match history
Springboks win 23
British & Irish Lions win 17