Simply unforgettable

SA Rugby magazine reflects on memorable moments from past Springbok-Lions series.

6 August 1955, Ellis Park, Johannesburg

Jack van der Schyff was one of 15 Springboks who made their Test debuts against the All Blacks in 1949. While the fullback performed well throughout the series, which the Boks won 4-0, he was overlooked by the selectors for the next six seasons.

However, Van der Schyff was given a Test lifeline when he was named in the Bok side to play the Lions in the first match of the 1955 series at Ellis Park, which was watched by a record crowd of 105 000.

The Lions were cruising to victory at 23-11, before the Boks hit back with two tries from left wing Sias Swart and loosehead prop Chris Koch, who weaved his way through the defence. Then, with just over a minute of injury time remaining, Bok right wing Theuns Briers beat two defenders to score his second try of the game and make it 23-22.

The match would now be decided by Van der Schyff’s conversion. With the 27-year-old having kicked two difficult penalties earlier in the match, as well as two conversions, the scoreboard operator removed the Boks’ second ’2′ and prepared to put a ’4′ in its place. Van der Schyff, however, didn’t want to take the kick, but was persuaded to by captain Stephen Fry. The fullback ran up and lifted his head as he made contact with the ball, which sailed past the left-hand upright. He dropped his head in utter dejection and the Lions began to celebrate.

Van der Schyff was one of seven Boks to be dropped for the next Test and would play no further part in a drawn series. However, a year later he was back in favour with the selectors, who had pencilled in his name at fullback for the Boks’ upcoming tour of New Zealand. But captain-in-waiting Salty du Rand threw a punch at the national trials, which forced the selectors to bring Basie Vivier into the squad as skipper, and Van der Schyff was axed in order to accommodate him.

The luckless No 15 never played for the Springboks again.

25 August 1962, Free State Stadium, Bloemfontein

The Springboks crushed the Lions 34-14 in the fourth Test of the 1962 series, with Mannetjies Roux’s late try the highlight of the match. The left wing received a long pass on the halfway line and cut back infield past several defenders. With only John Willcox to beat, Roux decided not to go for the corner and ran straight at the fullback, who didn’t even attempt to make the tackle. Roux rounded things off with an extravagant dive over the tryline.

8 June 1968, Loftus Versfeld, Pretoria

The Springboks started the 1968 series against the Lions with a 25-20 win, with Frik du Preez scoring a memorable try. SA’s Player of the Century received the ball at the lineout and shook off several tackles before breaking clear. Lions fullback Tom Kiernan tried to stop him, but was sent sprawling into touch as Du Preez went over. Lock Tiny Naudé and scrumhalf Dawie de Villiers also scored tries for the Boks, with the final score flattering the Lions.

13 July 1974, Boet Erasmus, Port Elizabeth

Before arriving in South Africa in 1974, the Lions decided they would not allow any of their players to be targeted by the opposition, and if there was an incident, the ’99 call’ (an abbreviation of 999, the emergency number in Britain and Ireland) would go out.

A Lions tour is hard enough without having your best players lined up by some thug in the opposition out to make a name for himself by putting a top Lion out of the forthcoming Test,’ wrote Willie John McBride in his autobiography. ‘In my book, that was cheating, and too many players in South Africa and New Zealand had got away with it for years. I was determined they were not going to this time, with me as Lions captain, and so it proved.’

The ’99 call’ was used for the first time in the Lions’ opening tour match against Eastern Province at Boet Erasmus stadium. According to The British & Irish Lions Miscellany, by Richard Bath, Springbok coach Johan Claassen walked into the EP change room before the game and encouraged their forwards to rough up the Lions. One of them did exactly that, headbutting Lions lock Gordon Brown, which sparked a 30-man brawl.

This didn’t come as a surprise to McBride, who expected the provincial sides to be dirtier than the Boks.

‘As these Lions were winning and starting to look a very useful outfit, it was safe to assume that some psychopaths lurking in a provincial side somewhere would target us and see just how tough we really were. This time, though, the louts who made their plan accordingly had bitten off more than they could chew.’

Before the EP game, McBride, who wasn’t playing, had told his team: ‘Tomorrow, if anything happens, we are all in it together – and I mean all. You belt the guy who is nearest to you as hard as you can. Whether he has been the one guilty of committing the illegal act has nothing to do with it. If that doesn’t stop it, you haven’t hit him hard enough. Then, once you’ve done that, it’s all over and we are back playing rugby.’

However, despite demonstrating that they wouldn’t be bullied, there was more confrontation to come in the Test series.

After winning the first two Tests, the Lions returned to Port Elizabeth full of confidence. In contrast, the Boks were under huge pressure to turn things around, and selected the biggest, most physical side they could, with ‘enforcer’ Moaner van Heerden coming into the second row.

The third Test, dubbed the ‘Battle of Boet Erasmus’, was one of the most violent ever, with Van Heerden kicking Bobby Windsor on the ground, after the Lions hooker had broken his thumb by punching the Bok lock. A huge fight then broke out, with JPR Williams running 50m from fullback to throw a flurry of punches at Van Heerden, who simply ran away. According to Jason Reason, author of The Unbeaten Lions, Brown threw ‘a succession of short left and rights while keeping his head prudently tucked in his shoulders, much after the style of Joe Frasier.’

Order was eventually restored, with the Lions going on to win the match 26-9 and taking an unassailable 3-0 lead in the series (the fourth match was drawn 13-13).

Interestingly, Windsor still insists the Lions’ ’99 call’ is a myth. ‘Can you imagine it?’ he argued. ‘Some guy has slugged you or booted a colleague in the head and there you are shouting, “99″. First, you would never think to do so, because you were piling in. Second, no one would hear you anyway.’

The ’99′ legend, though, lives on.

31 May 1980, Newlands, Cape Town

The Springboks returned to international rugby in 1980 after a three-year absence due to South Africa’s sporting isolation.

No 8 Morné du Plessis, with 14 Test caps, was the most experienced Bok around and therefore the obvious choice to captain his country against the South American Jaguars and the Lions. A comfortable 2-0 series win against the Jaguars helped the Boks to shake off the rust, before they travelled to Newlands for the first Test against the Lions.

In Springbok Saga, Chris Greyvenstein wrote that the match was only a few minutes old when [Lions No 8] Derek Quinnell sent Morné du Plessis staggering with a foolish and totally unwarranted punch which all but closed the Springbok captain’s eye.’

Du Plessis, however, refused to retaliate and the Boks went on to win 26-22 thanks to a late try by scrumhalf Divan Serfontein.

28 June 1997, King’s Park, Durban

Martin Johnson’s Lions arrived in South Africa as heavy underdogs with the local media predicting a 3-0 Test series whitewash for the reigning world champions. However, the visitors lost just one of eight tour matches (to the Blue Bulls) leading up to the first Test at Newlands, which they won 25-16.

While the Boks had come into the series on the back of seven Test victories, they were a disjointed outfit under inexperienced coach Carel du Plessis, whose romantic approach to the game was not suited to Test rugby.

Du Plessis also made some strange selections, including that of little known Griquas centre Edrich Lubbe, who was dropped after the Newlands defeat.

Still, the Boks looked set to level the series at King’s Park when they scored three unanswered tries through Joost van der Westhuizen, Percy Montgomery and André Joubert to lead 15-9.

Unfortunately for the hosts, their goal kicking was woeful with Montgomery missing two conversions and a penalty, Joubert fluffing a conversion, and Henry Honiball sending two penalties wide (which all added up to another 15 points). In stark contrast, Lions fullback Neil Jenkins kicked five penalties from five attempts which saw the teams locked at 15-15 late in the second half.

‘Although we had been under a great deal of pressure I had always believed that if we could stay relatively close on the score sheet we had the ability to win the game in the last 10 minutes,’ wrote Lions manager Fran Cotton in his book, My Pride of Lions. ‘Neil kept chipping away and I felt quite confident of victory once he had taken us level. Then came Jerry’s [Jeremy Guscott's] clinching drop goal. Jerry joked later about the look of panic on [scrumhalf] Matt Dawson’s face when he realised the pass was going to him rather than [flyhalf] Gregor Townsend but it couldn’t have gone to a better bloke because Jerry is always super cool.

‘We still had a few minutes to go [after taking an 18-15 lead] but I thought our general play during that period, coupled with our tackling and discipline, was tremendous.’

While the Lions went on to lose the third Test at Ellis Park 35-14 and were outscored by nine tries to three in the series, they returned home as heroes and, some would say, have never stopped celebrating.

By Simon Borchardt

This article first appeared in SA Rugby magazine