Lions versus Springboks: The history of the British and Irish Lions in South Africa

With the British and Irish Lions due to tour South Africa in June of this year, I thought it would be a good time to take a brief look into the history of Lions tours to South Africa. The Lions and South African rugby have been inextricably linked since rugby first became a sport in […]

Lions versus Springboks: The history of the British and Irish Lions in South Africa

With the British and Irish Lions due to tour South Africa in June of this year, I thought it would be a good time to take a brief look into the history of Lions tours to South Africa.

The Lions and South African rugby have been inextricably linked since rugby first became a sport in South Africa. The Lions also tour New Zealand and Australia but here I will concentrate on their tours to South Africa.

The South Africa Rugby Board (later Union) was first formed in 1889 and it quickly set about sending out an invitation for a European team to tour their country. A team made up of players from England and Scotland had toured New Zealand in 1888 and it was thought that a similar tour would help popularise the game of rugby in South Africa. The invite was accepted and the tour was arranged to take place in 1891.

These proto-Lions (although not technically a British and Irish Lions squad these teams have been subsequently included in every official history of the Lions) were the first international side to play rugby matches in South Africa and the three-match Test series was the first Test series played by the Lions, and the first ever international rugby matches played by South Africa.

Although the Lions were not made up of the best players around at that time (the Lions always had difficulty in terms of selection due to many players declining the invitation to travel due to financial and family constraints), with only nine full caps among the 20 players selected, with two players winning further caps, they still proved too strong for the South African players, who in 20 games only scored a single point against the visitors. The Lions finished the tour with 20 wins from 20 games, including the three-Test series against South Africa. Amazingly, those 20 games were played over a time span of only 30 days!

The star for the Lions was giant centre Randolph Aston, who scored 30 tries on tour (although a try at the time was only worth one point). Before setting sail, tour captain Bill McGlagan was presented with a trophy by a shipping magnet. This trophy was to be presented to the team that achieved the best result against the Lions on tour. The shipping magnet was Sir Donald Currie and the trophy became known as the Currie Cup, which is competed for by the South African provinces every year. The 1891 winners of the Cup were Griqualand West, who had conceded the lowest points of the teams playing against the Lions, losing 3-0.

When Jonny Hammond returned to South Africa with the Lions in 1896, this time as captain, he would have been amazed by the improvements made in rugby in the country in the interim five years. The Lions still won 19 of the 21 games played on tour, but they also conceded the first ever defeat by a Lions team. This was in the third Test against South Africa. This game was also the first international won by South Africa, and also the first match in which South Africa would wear their iconic dark green jerseys.

The South African captain was ‘Fergie’ Aston, the younger brother of Randolph Aston, who had been the top try scorer for the Lions on the previous tour. The 1896 Lions side was made up of players from England and Ireland this time. They weren’t to know that they would be the last Lions team to win a series in South Africa until 1974!

Jonny Hammond made another journey to South Africa with the Lions, in 1903, this time as coach. By now, South Africa were no longer the pupils and the Lions found the rugby much harder going. Of the 22 games played by the Lions, they won only 11, with eight defeats and three games drawn. They also conceded the Test series for the first time, with South Africa winning one Test and drawing the others.

There was quite a uniquely Scottish feel to the first Test. Not only was the Lions captain Mark Morrison a Scotsman, but so was the South African captain Alex Frew, who had actually played under Morrison when Scotland won the four Nations in 1901, before he emigrated to South Africa. And for the treble, the referee himself – Bill Donaldson – was also Scottish!

(Photo by Fox Photos/Getty Images)

Before the Lions were next to tour, in 1910, South Africa embarked on their first ever tour of Europe. This was the tour where they would first tog out with the iconic Springbok emblem on their jerseys. South Africa played 29 games on this tour, winning 26, with two lost and one drawn. They played all five Nations on tour, beating Ireland, Wales and France, losing to Scotland and drawing with England.

The Lions team that toured South Africa in 1910 was the strongest Lions selection yet, featuring a number of full internationals from Ireland, England, Scotland and Wales. The Lions also had an Australian in their ranks, the multi-talented Tom Richards, whose name has entered immortality, as the trophy awarded in the Lions series against Australia is named after him. Richards is the only man to ever play international rugby for both Australia and the Lions. Despite the calibre of their side, the 1910 Lions still lost the Test series, 3-1. Overall, the Lions played 24 matches, winning 13, drawing three and losing eight.

The 1910 tour would be the last Lions tour before the first World War broke out in 1914. Several rugby players from around the world would serve with distinction in this terrible conflict.

The Lions next tour would be to South Africa, in 1924. This would be the first tour given the official title of the British Isles Rugby Union Team. They would soon be christened ‘the Lions’ by the press. Unfortunately these players would fail to live up to their moniker as they would be the first Lions team that would win less games than they lost or drew. Out of 21 games played, the Lions won nine, lost nine and drew three. The Lions faced the usual problems of being underrepresented and the South Africans simply being too good.

One player that declined the invitation to tour was Scottish wing, Eric Liddell. Liddell instead competed in that year’s Olympic Games, where he would win medals and his story would later be immortalised in the great film, Chariots Of Fire. A player that did tour was Stanley Harris. This amazing man was born in South Africa but raised in England. He achieved international status in five different sports. He had been offered a place on the 1920 Olympics team but chose rugby instead.

Olympic flag

(Photo by Fabrice Coffrini/AFP via Getty Images)

Returning to South Africa he became the country’s light heavyweight boxing champion and the runner up in the heavyweight division. While injured in a rugby trial back in England, he took up ballroom dancing and won a medal in the World Amateur Championships. Returning to rugby, he played in 15 games on the 1924 Lions tour, including two Tests. He was also an international at tennis and water polo. And he also fought in both World Wars with distinction and was later awarded an OBE and CBE.

The Lions last tour before World War two was in 1938, again to South Africa. The South African team they faced would have a legitimate claim to being the best team in the world, having beaten New Zealand and Australia the previous year on tour. The Lions were again weakened by several of the top players of the time declaring themselves unavailable. Of the 29 that toured, only 18 had achieved full cap status. Despite this, the Lions still managed to win 17 of the 24 games played, including a win in the last Test, but they would again concede the Test series.

This win was the first in a Lions Test against South Africa since 1910. It was also the first win for the Lions in six Tests overall. The Lions won the first Test, 21-16, which was their biggest score achieved against the Springboks up to that point. The win came as such a surprise that when it was reported back in Europe, many thought the result a mistake and printed it as a win for South Africa! Playing against the Lions in the Test series was the great Danie Craven, who would go on to be one of the most important figures in the history of South African rugby.

The Lions next toured South Africa in 1955. They would be the first Lions squad to travel by air and would achieve the distinction by drawing the series, the best result by a Lions team since before 1900. It was also the first home series that South Africa failed to win in that same period. The Lions included some of the greats of world rugby, like Cliff Morgan and the very young Irish wing Tony O’Reilly. O’Reilly had just left school when chosen to go on tour. He would more than prove his selection by becoming the Lions top ever try scorer and would play in the next ten consecutive Tests for the Lions, over two tours.

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Cliff Morgan was one of the best scrumhalves of any time and also an accomplished singer. While journeying to South Africa, he taught his teammates songs in English, Welsh and even Afrikaaner. After touching down in South Africa, the Lions gave an impromptu singing performance and the South African press lauded them as the best Lions squad to ever tour South Africa. And this was before they had played a single game! The Test series was one of the most hard fought in history, with the first Test being won by a single point. This Test match was played in front of a then-record crowd of 95,000. The 1955 Lions would draw the Test series, with two wins and two defeats.

The Lions again toured South Africa in 1962. The ’60s would prove to be a very difficult time for the Lions. That decade, the Lions played 14 Tests overall, and won only two, against Australia. The Lions would lose ten of the remaining Tests and draw two. While they did lose the series, the 1962 Lions did achieve some good results, winning 15 of the 26 games played, losing five and drawing four. The highest loss against them was in the last Test, where South Africa won 34-14. Captain of the tour was Arthur Smith, who would achieve somewhat greater success as manager of the iconic 1971 Lions in New Zealand.

Another player on tour was the young Irish second row, Willie John McBride. This was the first the Lions would see of the legendary Irishman, but certainly not the last. McBride would go on to tour with the Lions a record-equalling five times in all and achieve a Test record of 17 caps, a record that will never be beaten.

McBride was among the Lions players to next tour South Africa, in 1968. Also included in the squad was the mercurial Scottish flanker Jim Telfer, who would return to South Africa with the Lions 29 years later as assistant coach. Two of the halfbacks selected were Barry John and Gareth Edwards. The two iconic Welshmen were unable have much influence on this Test series, both being injured early in the tour, but they would make their mark on the Lions on subsequent tours. Captain of the tour was the Irishman Tom Kiernan, who kicked the majority of the Lions points in the Test series. The solitary try came from Willie John McBride.

A general view of a lineout at sunset

(Photo by Richard Heathcote – World Rugby via Getty Images)

Two Lions would go on to make rugby history on the 1968 tour. Irishman Barry Bresnihan became the first replacement used by the Lions in a match when he came on for an injured Mike Gibson early in the tour. And Gibson would recover to become the first replacement used in an international rugby match when he came on for Barry John in the first Test.

The next time the Lions toured South Africa was in 1974 and these Lions have gone down in history as the most successful rugby touring team in modern history, known forever more as ‘the Invincibles’. Playing 22 games, they won 21 and drew the last, which was the last Test. They accumulated a massive 729 points and inflicted on South Africa their first home series defeat since 1896.

A number of the ’74 Lions had taken part in the historic Lions series win against the All Blacks in 1971 and would go on to be recognised as some of the greatest rugby players ever. JPR Williams, Gareth Edwards, Mervyn Davies, McBride, Gordon Brown and Ian ‘Mighty Mouse’ McLauchlan played in the Test series on both tours. They were ably assisted in the series against South Africa by Welsh flyer JJ Williams, the incomparable Phil Bennett at scrumhalf, Irish flanker Fergus Slattery (who had toured in ’71 but not appeared in the Test series) and the great Bobby Windsor at hooker.

Two other players that played a main part in the Test series were English prop Fran Cotton and Scottish centre Ian McGeechan. Both would return with the Lions to South Africa 24 years later. Like many recent tours to South Africa, the 1974 Lions were threatened with boycott with many believing all ties should be cut with South Africa due to the hateful apartheid regime. Two Lions that had toured in 1968, John Taylor and Gerald Davies, refused to tour in 1974. On the other hand, there were some who believed that the Lions should tour and see for themselves the terrible effects of apartheid.

The Lions were celebrated by the black South Africans wherever they played, and the Lions would often acknowledge the support they received in the segregated stadiums. The black South Africans saw the Lions’ victories as blows to the apartheid regime as the South African rugby team at the time was seen as an almost physical manifestation of apartheid. Nelson Mandela subsequently talked about how he and his fellow prisoners would cheer on the Lions while incarcerated on Robben Island, much to the annoyance of their Afrikaners guards, listening to the games on the wireless.

The 1980 Lions faced similar outcry to their touring from governments and anti-apartheid protestors, but these objections were somewhat muted due to the US boycott of the Moscow Summer Olympics that same year. English second row Bill Beaumont, who had led England to their first Grand Slam since 1957 earlier that year, was captain.

World Rugby chairman Bill Beaumont and vice-chairman Agustin Pichot

Bill Beaumont (left) has gone on to a career in administration. (Andrew Redington/Getty Images)

The Lions had a great record in the provincial games, winning all, but came undone in the Test series, losing three and winning only one. Their final record of playing 18, winning 15 and losing three was very good, all things considered. The shorter number of games was testament to how tough the Lions tours had become.

Two South Africans who played a part in the Springboks’ Test win were scrumhalf Naas Botha, who would go on to be recognised as one of the game’s best kickers, and Morne du Plessis, who would go on to manage South Africa to their first World Cup victory 15 years later.

The Lions were next to tour South Africa in 1986, but gave in to international pressure and cancelled the tour. There were two matches held that year in which South African players were invited to attend: the Lions against the Rest of the World and a Five Nations team versus a World XV. The games were held to celebrate the centenary of the founding of the International Rugby Board.

South Africa was now cut off from the rest of the rugby-playing world, although a team from New Zealand did accept money to take part in a clandestine tour of the country, much to the annoyance and disgust of their citizens. This tour was never recognised officially. Then the first World Cup was held in 1987, and South Africa really felt its isolation from world rugby. There were some around the world who asked whether the World Cup could be considered a true international competition with the absence of one of rugby’s heavyweights.

Then things changed for the better in South Africa. Nelson Mandela was released from prison in 1990 and would later be elected president of South Africa in 1994, and the apartheid regime was dismantled.

Joost van der Westhuizen passes the ball

Joost van der Westhuizen at the 1995 World Cup. (Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images)

South Africa was welcomed back to international rugby and hosted the third World Cup in 1995, which they subsequently won, with the iconic picture of South African president Mandela handing the trophy to captain Francois Pienaar. South Africa now got ready to welcome the Lions for the first time in 17 years.

The 1997 Lions would take their place as one of the top Lions teams. The team contained some future legends of the game. Martin Johnson was captain, and he would lead England to their first and only World Cup title six years later. He had fellow future World Cup winner Lawrence Dallaglio in the back row. There was also Irish hooker Keith Wood. At centre were the robust Scott Gibbs, one of several players returning from rugby league, and the sublime Jeremy Guscott, who kicked the winning drop goal to clinch the series in the second Test. Playing out of position at fullback was Welshman Neil Jenkins, who would kick most of the Lions’ points.

South Africa were in a transitional period when the Lions visited. They were without their inspirational captain and coach, Francois Pienaar and Kitch Christie, who had both played such an important role in the Springboks lifting the World Cup in 1995.

Although fielding a strong side against the Lions, including the brilliant Joost van der Westhuizen and the giant prop Os du Randt, who would win a further World Cup medal in 2007, they were without a recognised goal-kicker in the series. Although Percy Montgomery made his debut in the series and would go on to be one of the most prolific points scorers in World Rugby, he was not at that stage in his career yet. The Springboks restored some pride in winning the last Test, 35-16, but by then the series was lost.

The 2000s were a difficult time for the Lions. They won the first Test in 2001 against Australia. On a very small note, this is the first tour in which the Lions were first referred to officially as the British and Irish Lions. Before, they were simply the British Lions. But they would go on to lose that series 2-1, and then the Lions were clean-swept by New Zealand in the Test series in 2005.

When the Lions touched down in South Africa in 2009, they seemed to have the future of the brand in their hands. Many rugby people were questioning the need for continuing the Lions tours in the professional era, and another damaging defeat would be seen as the the nail in the coffin for the Lions concept. Although losing a hard-fought series 2-1, the ’09 Lions restored some much needed pride to the badge, giving their all and winning the last Test, against a South African team that were once again world champions in 2007.

The Lions return to South Africa in 2021 with Alun Wyn-Jones as captain. He’s the only survivor of the 2009 Lions team.

Alun Wyn Jones of the British & Irish Lions

(Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

He leads a Lions squad full of terrific players who are scheduled to take on five clubs and a South African team that are once again world champions, having won their third World Cup in 2019. It’s sure to be a wonderful Test series and will take its place among the great tours of the last 130 years.

The Lions are a unique sport in rugby country. The idea that players from four different countries, that spend most of their time battling lumps out of each other, can come together under one badge and unite is a wonderful thing. As long as there is rugby played, it is hoped that the British and Irish Lions will continue.

I gained my of my information in writing this article from two wonderful books on the Lions. The first is the marvellous The History Of the British and Irish Lions, by Clem and Greg Thomas, which covers each Lions tour in exhaustive detail.

The second book is Behind the Lions, which has a brief summary of each tour and the thoughts and opinions of those players and management that took part.

I also gained some great insights from the terrific Rugby’s Most Bizarre Moments by John Griffiths, which provides some fascinating and often hilarious occurrences, which have taken place in rugby matches over the years, from 1871 up to now. All three are wonderful reads and I highly recommend them.

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Lions tour schedule revised due to COVID

The British and Irish Lions’ match schedule for their rugby tour of South Africa has been changed to mitigate the risks posed by the coronavirus pandemic, while there will almost certainly be no fans at any of the games. The announcement on Friday gave final confirmation that the tour will go ahead in July and […]

Lions tour schedule revised due to COVID

The British and Irish Lions’ match schedule for their rugby tour of South Africa has been changed to mitigate the risks posed by the coronavirus pandemic, while there will almost certainly be no fans at any of the games.

The announcement on Friday gave final confirmation that the tour will go ahead in July and August with the Lions playing eight games, including three Tests against the reigning world champion Springboks.

But seven of the eight games will now be in either Johannesburg or Cape Town, with the other in the capital, Pretoria. That means the Lions will not travel to Durban, Port Elizabeth or Nelspruit, as originally planned for the tour.

(Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

SA Rugby chief executive Jurie Roux said they were hopeful that the South African government might relax some restrictions on fans being allowed back into sports stadiums by July “but, for the moment, we are planning for an event behind closed doors.”

The Lions regularly take tens of thousands of their supporters with them on their once-every-four-years tours to South Africa, New Zealand and Australia. Their fans’ presence is a key part of the spirit of the tour, but the pandemic has likely meant that can’t happen this time.

“While things will undoubtedly look different to a typical Lions tour, together with SA Rugby we are determined to deliver an uninterrupted series for the players who will take the field, as well as the many millions of people watching at home,” British and Irish Lions managing director Ben Calveley said.

“We would like to thank all Lions supporters for their patience and understanding as we continue to navigate our way through the impact of the pandemic.”

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