Lions in South Africa 2009

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Emulating the heroes of '55
Huw Richards
June 18, 2009

Possibly only the All Blacks among the world's great rugby teams are more aware of their heritage than the British and Irish Lions. So it is a reasonable bet that the Lions team who step out in Durban on Saturday will have been made aware of how their predecessors of 1955 did when they played their first Test.

Like the current squad, the 1955 Lions were led by an Irish lock - the Ulsterman Robin Thompson - and had a sizeable Welsh contingent. There were six, including the entire front-row, in the line-up at Ellis Park, Johannesburg on 6th August 1955. It was the 13th match of a tour that eventually extended to 25, including four Tests.

The Lions also, equally inconceivably to modern eyes, included a player making his international debut. Scrum-half Dick Jeeps of Northampton had been kept out of the England side by Johnny Williams but, chosen for the Lions on the recommendation of Haydn Tanner, had moved ahead of Williams on tour because his pass suited outside-half Cliff Morgan - who liked the ball placed in front of him to run onto - better than Williams' rocketing service.

Their feats would go into Lions legend. They were watched by a then- world record crowd estimated at 95,000. Those packed into the segregated non-European enclosures included Nelson Mandela, a rising lawyer and political activist with trial and imprisonment still ahead of him.

That crowd saw a match worthy of its number. When all elements are included - significance, excitement, tension and quality of play - it has a good claim to be regarded as the greatest in Lions history.

The Boks had not lost a Test series since 1896, but were hardly match-practised. It was two years since their last match, against the touring Wallabies of 1953, and there were nine new caps, including league-legend-to-be Tom van Vollenhoven at centre and lock Johan Claassen, destined to win a then-record 28 Bok caps, in a team led by Western Province flanker Stephen Fry.

Scottish lock Ernie Michie, in full highland dress, piped the Lions on to the pitch and they started well with a try - then worth three points - by Irish wing Cecil Pedlow after England centre Jeff Butterfield had kept the move going by catching a pass behind his back. But the Boks hit back.

Fullback Jackie van der Schyff, playing his first Test for seven years after landing the winning drop-goal for Western Transvaal in their victory over the Lions in the first match of the tour, kicked two penalties. Then, five foot three scrum-half Tommy Gentles combined with Fry to send debutant wing Theunis Briers across. Van der Schyff converted and the Boks led 11-3.

The next 20 minutes or so may just be the best in Lions history. Butterfield, of whom Morgan recalls :"We played beautiful rugby because of him" went over near the posts, Scottish full-back Angus Cameron converted and the interval deficit was only 11-8. Shortly after the break Liverpool flanker Reg Higgins went down injured. This was long before replacements were allowed, but there was no question of Higgins carrying on - he would be out for a year with damaged knee ligaments. Down to 14 men and with most of the half to go, it should have been the end for the Lions.

Morgan has told the story of Higgins insisting that the stretcher-bearers let him watch for a while from behind the posts, saying :"I want to see the Lions score a try". They duly delivered one.

Hooker Bryn Meredith and the Lions seven-man scrum struck against the head. Jeeps passed and Morgan, described by journalist J.B.G.Thomas as 'the radioactive particle around which the whole social side of the tour revolved' burst past marker Basie van Wyk, swerved around van der Schyff and scored under the posts.

Cameron converted and was on target twice more in the next few minutes as Lions kicks bamboozled van der Schyff for Scotland flanker Jim Greenwood - later to be mentor to generations of Loughborough students and author of 'Positive Rugby', claimed by Clive Woodward to be the only rugby book he ever read - and teenage Irish wing Tony O'Reilly, destined for a still more exotic post-retirement career, to score tries. Twenty points in around as many minutes, most of them with only 14 men, gave the Lions a 23-11 lead.

The Boks, as might be expected, struck back. It was Cameron's turn to be caught by a well-placed kick and Sias Swart, a centre from South-West Africa (now Namibia) had only to fall on the ball to score. It was 23-14 with 19 minutes left and the depleted Lions inevitably tiring.

They held on until the final minute of regular time when Bok prop Chris Koch scored a remarkable solo try. Van der Schyff converted and the game went into injury time at 23-19. With the extra three minutes almost up Briers forced his way over for his second score. Morgan remembers thinking 'Oh, god, this is it. We've lost the game' as van der Schyff prepared to kick.

The scoreboard operator stood ready to amend numbers which read BRITISH ISLES 23 SUID AFRIKA 22. He had no need. Van der Schyff missed. The photograph of him hanging his head as he turned away is among the definitive images of sporting dejection.

The Lions went on to draw the four-match series, the sole break in 70 years of failure between the maturing of southern hemisphere rugby around the turn of the century and the heroics of 1971 and 1974. Surviving members, an eloquent and animated presence at a pre-Tour event in Cardiff last year, retain fond memories of the rugby they played and off-field enjoyment, notably the choir conducted by Morgan. South African writer Edward Griffiths draws a cooler picture and records that relations between the teams 'were never more than cordial', but also that O'Reilly's influence has led to a substantial thawing in later years.

Nothing would make the 2009 Lions happier than to emulate them. To match the achievements of 1955, either by taking the first and third Tests or alternatively winning in Johannesburg and Pretoria, would add up to a series victory. Over to them…

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