1974 Lions

The 1974 Tour of the Lions to South Africa was undoubtedly the most unsettling tour ever for Springbok rugby. Touring unbeaten through South Africa superior in every aspect in virtually every single match including the test matches it was a massive wake-up call for South African rugby.

I was 12 years old when this tour eventuated. In my mind at that time the Springboks had an aura of invincibility. I was too young to know about the 1956 and 1965 tours as the patriotic Afrikaans media did not write much about it. The country was still in euphoria after the 1970 victory over Lochore’s All Blacks and the unbeaten 1971 tour to Australia. It was never said in so many words but generally the 1972 loss against England was seen as just a hiccup; a fleeting glitch due to team selections and underestimation of  the opposition.   South Africa to be brutally honest had no idea what was coming when the British and Irish Lions arrived in the country in May 1974. Hannes Marais admitted to this when he said in an interview that the South African expectation of the ‘74 Lions was built on the 1968 Lions which was in his words “a pretty useless lot; just on tour for the party”. 

Some proper reflection on British rugby in general would have revealed that rugby in the United Kingdom was on an upward curve and that a significant transformation took place in how they approach the game. England for example toured to South Africa in 1972 beating the Springboks in a one-off test and then followed it up by beating the All Blacks in 1973 in New Zealand; revealing that the 1972 victory over the Springboks was not a flux and/or the results of South Africa being poor on the day.  British rugby become a lot more professional in terms of coaching and preparation of players in the late nineteen sixties as was evident by the fact that the 69/70 EOYT Springboks could not win a single test match in the UK. The failure of the 69/70 South African tourists was never really dissected by the South African media and rugby administrators as the heavy resistance against the tour took precedence upon reflection of the tour. In fact Gerhard Viviers the Afrikaans rugby commentator wrote a book about that tour called “Rugby agter doringdraad” (Rugby behind barbwire) which in essence was a very patriotic account of that tour putting the blame for failure squarely on the behaviour of the British demonstrators without saying it in so many word.

In the midst of all this the Lions toured to New Zealand in 1971 and won the series. The success of the 1972 England team to SA, the 1973 England team to New Zealand as well as the 1971 Lions series win in New Zealand left clear signals that British rugby was on a high but somehow this escaped the awareness of the South African rugby community.

The real stars of that 1971 series were players from Wales with some stand-outs from Scotland as well which indicated that England was not the only team on an upward curve in the United Kingdom in the early nineteen seventies. In addition, the Lions coach Syd Millar did his homework and came to South Africa properly prepared while South African rugby (administrators, coaches, selectors and senior players) were seemingly totally oblivious to what was heading their way.

Fact is that the 1955 British and Irish Lions were considered by Danie Craven to be the best side (that was before the 1974 Lions) to have toured South Africa. So not all Lions sides was poor as Marais seems to have thought at the start of the 1974 Lions tour and a bit of research would have revealed to him that the 1974 side had a core of experienced internationals that toured New Zealand and beaten the All Blacks at home in 1971.

Positions

1971 Lions

1974 Lions

Fullbacks

R HillerJ

PR Williams

Andy Irvine

JPR Williams

Threequarters

JC Bevan

AG Bigger

SJ Dawes

TGR Davies

DJ Duckham

AJ Lewis

JS Spencer

CWW Rea

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