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.
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Players like John Pullin, Alan Old, Mike Burton, Tony Neary, Andy Ripley, Fran Cotton, Alan Morley, Mike Burton and Chris Ralston also played in the 1972 for England against South Arica and most probably in 1973 against New Zealand.
South Africa however didn’t have television in 1971 so South Africans didn’t see that series against the All Blacks. In addition the last Springbok tour to the UK was in 1969 so the SA rugby fraternity hardly knew the players that were coming to the country. They had no idea really that coaching and training methods had taken a more professional turn in the UK.
As it were the only easy obtainable information available about the Lions was in in the form of pull-out brochures ‘like the one shown below published in popular magazines such as the Huisgenoot (You). The articles were mostly focussing on introducing the players and were very superficial with regard to what it actually revealed about the players.
The ’74 Lions side had no weaknesses and they came to South Africa with a thorough understanding of the Springboks mind-set. It was McBride’s 5th tour as a British and Irish Lions; his first Lions tour to South Africa was in 1962. They knew that if you can beat the Springboks in the scrums they can be beaten so they targeted the scrum. Millar the coach told his troops at the start of the tour: “You’ll scrums and scrum and scrum for the next few months until you’re sick of it, but if we want to beat these bastards we need to out scrum them.” And that is exactly what they did; purposely targeting the scrum in every single provincial match leading up to the first test; scrumming the opposition into the ground. McLauchlan at loose-head proved a stumbling block to most opponents and often the Lions front row was so low that the hooker, especially Windsor, frequently struck with his head.
The perfect balance of the pack; in binding and positioning of feet, plus the driving over the ball followed by the pause and ‘holding’ when required, produced a high standard of scrummaging. The eight man shove on their opponents ‘put in’ was most effective and the low straight as a table position of every member in the pack was impressive.
The big test was however in the first test and that first scrum was the place where they took control and did the damage.
This video shows the highlights of the four test matches. Notice how the Springboks get pushed back in the scrum in the first test. Snyman dropped a goal from the ball that came out of that scrum which diffused the humilation somewhat and disguised the true impact of that scrum on the test and series a bit. See also in the material on the second test how stable the Lions scrum were when Edwards launched a box kick that led to JJ Williams’ first try. In comparison see how the Springboks got pushed back in the scrum that led to Gordon Browns try towards the end of the clip on the second test. SA were put under so much pressure in the scrum that the backline could not function properly and in the case of Browns try -in the second test- the pressure culminated in an inability to make a proper clearance kick which allowed the Lions to run at them so that Brown could score.
Another very famous aspect of this tour was the 99-call. The Lions decided that they are not going to allow intimidation by the Springboks. So whenever there were any form of physical intimidation they are all going to jump in and retaliate on the call 99. This video clip shows the 99-call being put into action during the third test in Port Elizabeth. JPR Williams famously ran 55 meters from his fullback spot to go and punch Moaner van Heerden when the 99-call was made. This video features interviews with some Lions players about the 99-call.
The lions ran away with the provincial matches as can be seen in this slide show I’ve put together on the 1974 tour.
The games against Western Province, Transvaal and Free State had significant impact on the series.
Western Province ran the ball at the Lions and scored two good tries on a dry field. This was incidentally the last time a try was registered on a Saturday match against the Lions up to the fourth test.
The success of the WP backline and the ability of their pack to manage upfront had however a misleading effect on the South African selectors. They opted to go for essentially a Western Province team that could run at the Lions. There were eight (9 if you include Gert Muller who started his international career playing for Western Province) in the Springbok team and I can still remember the newspaper headlines complaining that there were too many WP players in the team. The Rapport’s (leading Afrikaans Sunday newspaper) head line was that irrespective of the result (win, draw or lose) of the first test there simply was too many Western Province players in the Springbok team.
Newlands was however heavy with rain on test day and the Lions controlled the match with forwards and scrumhalf while the Springboks never tried to run the ball.
The Transvaal match was played just before the second test. The Lions had flu in the camp and was playing without playmaker Gareth Edwards and they were struggling with the high altitude. This left the impression that they were vulnerable in the pack at altitude and the selectors as a consequence opted for Highveld players like Nic Bezuidenhout, Dave Fredrickson, and Kevin de Klerk in the pack. Morné du Plessis was moved from No8 to 6 and Dougald McDonald was brought in as No8. In total their where 6 changes and one position shift to the team. Gerald Bosch was brought in on flyhalf with the idea to play a tight game and controlling proceeding with Bosch from the No10 position. The Lions however took control up front and the Springbok pack was humiliated in the scrums and line-outs.
The near success of the Free State team against the Lions two Saturdays before the third test saw the selectors going for quite a number of Free State players in team selection for that deciding test match. Jackie Snyman was moved to flyhalf, Gerrie Sonnekus was selected as scrumhalf while Jan Schlebusch and Peter Cronje was brought in on centre. The pack also featured players who played well against the Lions in matches for Free State, the Quagga barbarians and Northern Transvaal in the weeks building up to the third test. John Williams was replaced by Johan de Bruyn, Polla Fourie and Klippies Kritzinger got selected as loose forwards While Moaner van Heerden replaced Kevin de Klerk on the other lock. Piston van Wyk was brought back as hooker. In total 9 changes and one positional shift was made to the team that played in the second test.
Polla Fourie revealed in 1980 that they felt like a bunch of lost sheep going into that 3rd test. There were no structures, set moves, and cohesiveness in the team due to the multiple changes and the fact that most of the players have never played together. The biggest mistake was the selection of Gerrie Sonnekus on scrumhalf in place of the injured Paul Bayvel ahead of players like Barry Wolmerans and Gert Schutte. Sonnekus had a shocker and received much of the blame for the Springboks struggling performance which was a bit unfair as the pack was comprehensively beaten. JJ Williams repeated his feat in the second and scored another double in the third test match.
The last test was a draw 13 all and is remembered mainly for the fact that Max Baise -the referee- disallowed what the Lions believed was a try by Fergus Slattery in the dying seconds. It is interesting how this is mentioned and elaborated on during interviews with Lions players of that tour. Ignored is the fact that Max Baise awarded a try to Roger Uttley after Chis Pope dotted it down in his own in goal area. Ignored also is the fact that the pass by Gareth Edwards that lead to Andy Irvine’s try seemed to have been forward.
The fourth test is further more remembered for the outstanding line-out play of John Williams; the pass that Gert Muller knocked on with an open run to the goal line after a brilliant line break by Jackie Snyman and the fact that Peter Cronje scored the Springboks first and only try in the series.
Below is a summary of the 1974 tour. It was a devastating experience for SA rugby fans but in hindsight one that seemed to have spirited SA rugby to adjust. At the end of that year the Boks toured to France and won the series. A feat that was repeated when France toured to SA in 1975 and in 1976 South Africa won a series against the All Blacks. The Springboks had a brilliant show against a world international XV in 1977 and then won an outstanding series against the Lions in 1980 while also beating the Jaguars and Ireland in two respective series consisting of two test matches each. In addition there was a one off test match against France in 1980 that the Springboks won quite comprehensively. The team that toured to New Zealand in 1981 was also very competitive.