The 70s: a decade largely remembered for questionable hairstyles, economic uncertainty, social upheaval and the Bee Gees. In rugby terms, however, it was the stage of one of the most controversial sporting series in history; the 1974 Lions tour to South Africa.
Under the apartheid regime, South Africa had gradually cultivated a reputation for itself as an international pariah.
Many of the British public and their leaders were fundamentally opposed to the tour going ahead, though it did materialise, albeit under fiery circumstances.
The Lions were captained by the legendary Willie-John McBride and boasted other revered names among their ranks such as Gareth Edwards, JPR Williams, Phil Bennett, Ian McGeechan, Fergus Slattery and JJ Williams.
McBride was well aware of the daunting task ahead of the team – the Springboks had never lost a series on home soil before – and it was imperative to him that they were all on the same page when he sat his players down before they departed.
“I said, ‘I’m going to South Africa...I have one objective: to win the series...it’s nothing to do with politics, as far as I’m concerned, nothing. If anybody has any doubt about going on this tour, the door is open. Please leave now. Don’t come to me in a week, don’t come to me tomorrow, don’t come to me in three weeks, because you’re no use to this team if you have the slightest doubt and you’re certainly no use to me,’” McBride recalls, “Nobody moved. And I said, ‘Okay, we now are on the road.’”
The first significant game of the tour was against Eastern Province- then tough customers in the South African provincial scene – who were led by the Springbok captain, Hannes Marais.
With the tensions electric off the field, it was inevitable that violence would rear its head on it, and the Lions were prepared.
At the shout of McBride’s famous “99” call, the men in red swarmed with steely aggression and clenched fists, administering brutal beatings on any opposition player who dared antagonise one of their own. The Lions had made a statement, in no uncertain terms, that their days of being bullied by the burly Afrikaners were over and the spirit of the tour was forged.
Lions 28 – 14 Eastern Province.
McBride’s charges marched on to Newlands to take on giants Western Province one week before the first test at the same venue and emerged 17 – 8 victors, as yet unbeaten on the tour.
The Springboks took on their rivals at a wet and muddy Newlands on the 8th of June and were defeated 12-3, the first Lions victory at that venue since 1938.
“It [the victory] gave everybody that tremendous feeling that we were dominant and we were believing in ourselves.” said McBride.
The road to the second test saw the Lions despatch the Southern Universities XV (26-4), Transvaal (23-15) and Rhodesia (42-6) before they took the field in Pretoria.
The team bus pulled up to Loftus Versveld with its occupants in full song – belting out the rousing lyrics of Flower Of Scotland and revelling in a spirit of confidence which manifested on the field of play.
“When we got off that bus and into the dressing room, we knew that something special was going to happen that day.” former Lions lock Gordon Brown recounts.
Brown was right, and the Lions were dominant, winning the second test 28-9 in front of a shocked crowd to go up 2-0 in the series.
The 13th of July 1974 saw the sides clash in the vital third test, again, in Port Elizabeth.
The Springboks, now desperate for victory blasted out of the tunnel onto the field like green bullets from a gun, a tongue-lashing from the Minister of Sport in the dressing room still ringing in their ears. What transpired was the most brutal, violent game of the tour, “Fitting more for the boxing ring,” a commentator quipped. At the final whistle the players left the blood-stained pitch with the scoreboard reading 26-9 in the Lion’s favour and McBride’s men were forever etched in history.
The fourth and final test ended in a 13-13 draw, but the writing was already on the wall; that the Springboks had been out-played and out-fought, suffering their first ever home series defeat to a Lions team that would go down as one of the greatest in the tradition.
The Lions returned home unbeaten, having played 22 games, winning 21 and drawing 1, scarring the pride of the Springbok jersey.
As we look towards the tour of 2021, the mouth waters at the prospect of the now world champion South Africans taking on the best of Britain and Ireland in another clash of physicality and flair.