IRB Hall of Fame - The Lions & South Africa

(IRB.COM) Thursday 9 April 2009
By By Chris Thau

 IRB Hall of Fame - The Lions & South Africa
Current Lions coach Ian McGeechan is one of the 21st century nominees and also played for the Lions in South Africa in 1974

The class of 2009

It is difficult to underestimate the impact that the British and Irish Lions have had on the world game and South Africa in particular. There have been 12 tours to South Africa thus far and the 13th, due to start in May is expected with trepidation and excitement, both by the South African rugby community and the world at large. It is only fitting, therefore, that this year’s IRB Hall of Fame nominees all featured in one of these two teams.



More than 100 years have passed since the Lions, at the time called the British Team, first toured South Africa, at the time a collection of colonies and free territories having in common the love of the game. 

By 1890, rugby had taken South Africa by storm with the game’s pioneers founding clubs in the Western Cape, Kimberley, Eastern Cape and Transvaal. The clubs became stronger and as the numbers grew they formed Unions looking far afield for new challenges and competition.

In 1883 the Western Province RFU and Stellenbosch Rugby Club were formed, while the following year the first match between Cape Town and Kimberley was played. In 1885 the first tournament was held at Grahamstown with four teams challenging for honours, the hosts and the visitors from Cape Town, Kimberley and Port Elizabeth. Then in 1886, the Griqualand West Union was formed in Kimberley.

Matches between Pretoria and Johannesburg were played in 1888, the year when Kimberley toured Cape Town. In 1889 the South African Rugby Football Board was formed and held its first tournament at Kimberley, with four representative teams, the Western Province, Transvaal, Griqualand West and the Eastern Province competing for the coveted title of the Champion Union. 

The idea to invite a British team to visit South Africa was a logical consequence of the strong development of the game and was received with great enthusiasm by all and sundry. With Western Province taking the lead, the Rugby Football Union were approached for help and direction.

Naturally, this was unchartered territory, especially since the previous two tours of 1888, the Natives one to Britain and the British to New Zealand and Australia, had been private affairs, run by promoters for financial gain.

In the aftermath of those 1888 ventures, the RFU had stated firmly and categorically that from then on international representative tours would be sanctioned and whenever appropriate financed by the Unions themselves. But still, there were concerns about the financial viability of such tours as both hosts and visitors had very little experience on the financial aspects of a tour.

To allay the fears of the RFU, Sir Cecil Rhodes, the then Prime Minister of the Cape Colony, stepped in and announced that he would personally underwrite the tour. The first team, a combination of English and Scottish players – the majority of them former Cambridge University players – arrived in 1891 under the captaincy of Bill Maclagan, the legendary Scottish centre and full back, who at the time was the most capped Scottish player of all-time.

The British team, managed by Edwin Ash, played nine matches and won all of them, scoring 50 goals (converted tries), 39 tries, six dropped goals, seven penalty goals and one goal from mark (a procedure discontinued several years ago) to one try scored by Charles Versfeld, a member of a well-known sporting family from Cape Town.

A new Lions tour was launched in 1896 under the captaincy of John Hammond, who had toured with the 1891 team and would later return for the third time to South Africa as manager of the 1903 Lions. These were the two tours of the 19th Century, which the Lions won. In the 20th Century, they only won a series twice in 1974 and 1997 and drew once in 1955. The forthcoming tour is the first of the 21st Century to South Africa.

The IRB Hall of Fame Induction panel has had a look at the heroes of the 12 Test series in South Africa in the 106 years between 1891 and 1997. The candidates are divided into three sections, the 19th Century, the 20th Century and 21st Century.

Chris Thau is the Secretary of the IRB Hall of Fame

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