The first British & Irish Lions of the professional era saw them traveled to South Africa in 1997 and defeated the winners of the last World Cup (1995) for the first time since 1980.
The scotch Ian McGeechan coached that team for an unprecedented third time with Martin johnson in the second line of La Rosa becoming the first English captain of the British since Bill Beaumont. Fran Cotton, who played for the third time in the team, assumed the role of driver. In addition, the head coach included six former players from Rugby League: Allan Bateman, Scott Gibbs, John Bentley, Alan Tait, Dai Young and Scott Quinnell, in an attempt to empower its cast and put it in competition with none other than South Africa.
The British & Irish Lions made an instant impression by winning the tour’s opening four games, including a win by 64 to 14 a Mpumalanga. In the opening clash, McGeechan rounded up his players and gave them one of his most famous speeches. After the loss to North Transvaal in the fourth game, the Lions beat Gauteng 20-14 thanks to a 70-yard kick from Bentley that set the tone for what was to come.
The Lions had won five of their first six meetings when they came to Durban for the fourth unofficial Test against Currie Cup starters, Natal at King’s Park. That match turned into a decisive game on the tour, with tries from Gregor Townsend, Mike Catt and Lawrence Dallaglio and the excellent kick from Jenkins, who added 24 points (six penalties and three conversions).
The first game against South Africa
The preparation for the first test was famous for the speech of Jim Telfer to their forwards and, in front of more than 50 thousand spectators in Cape Town, they were Martin Johnson, Lawrence Dallaglio and Keith Wood who put the scrum on their shoulders.
However, it was Matt dawson who ended up dealing a crucial blow to South Africa. After an early exchange of penalties, Os du Randt scored the first South African try, but Neil jenkins put the Lions up in the score to end the first half with three penalties and the 9-8 quarter.
So with the entrance of the wing Russell Bennett who supported a try in the second halfAs the Springboks were 16-15 up, with little time left to play. But it was then that the incredible intervention of Matt Dawson, with a solitary run down the blind side and after eluding four defenders, supported the corner to leave things 20 to 16 in favor of the visit. Scotsman Alan Tait’s new stoppage time try left the Lions to seal a memorable 25-16 victory.
The rematch was also for the Lions
The second game was played in the Durban King’s Park and, similarly to the first, the South Africans drew all their weapons to seek revenge.
The hosts supported three times, through Joost van der Westhuizen, the debutante Percy Montgomery and Andre Joubert, while the Lions couldn’t get a try. On the other hand, the locals failed the conversions, as well as the penalties, and those six deflected kicks ended up being decisive. Why? Because on the other side they found in Neil Jenkins, once again, a staunch opponent who with five vital penalties equaled the score.
With three minutes to go and the score tied at 15 points, a kick from the Lions hooker Keith wood from his own half court, he left the South African defense with no choice but to concede a line on his 22 yards. Later, after departure, Gregor Townsend was knocked down, and center Jeremy Guscott with a drop decreed the final score 18-15 for the Lions, who secured the series with a 2-0 lead.
South Africa won the third match
With the series already assured and the injuries of some of its players as a result of the wear and tear of the previous twelve games, the Lions made five changes for the final game and South Africa edged them 35-16. But this second defeat of the tour, after playing thirteen games, did not prevent the great celebration of the men in red who obtained a historic victory in the series by 2 to 1, after a long time in South Africa.
Games played 13 (won 11 and lost 2)
Series vs South Africa result: 2-1
Coach: Ian McGeechan, in charge for the third time
Captain: Martin Johnson.
Goal scorer: Neil Jenkins, 41 points.
Forwards: Scott Quinnell, Jason Leonard, Keith Wood, Doddie Weir, Mark Regan, Tom Smith, Graham Rowntree, Martin Johnson, Lawrence Dallaglio, Richard Hill, Paul Wallace, Barry Williams, Rob Wainwright, Simon Shaw, Neil Back, Jeremy Davidson and Dai Young .
Backs: Rob Howley, Allan Bateman, Tim Stimpson, John Bentley, Matt Dawson, Neil Jenkins, Jeremy Guscott, Ieuan Evans, Gregor Townsend, Nick Beal, Paul Grayson, Scott Gibbs, Mike Catt, Tony Underwood, Alan Tait, and Austin Healey.
The 13 matches of the tour in detail
– 05/24/1997: Eastern Province Inv XV 11-39 British & Irish Lions. Stadium: Boet Erasmus Stadium. Points: Tries by Jeremy Guscott (2), Will Greenwood, Doddie Weir and Tony Underwood; two penalties and four conversions by Neil Jenkins.
– 05/28/1997: Border Bulldogs 14-18 British & Irish Lions. Stadium: Basil Kenyon Stadium. Points: Tries by John Bentley, Mark Regan and Rob Wainwright, plus a penalty by Tim Stimpson.
– 05/31/1997: Western Province 21-38 British & Irish Lions. Stadium: Newlands. Points: Tries by John Bentley (2), Will Greenwood and Ieuan Evans; four penalties and three conversions by Tim Stimpson
– 06/03/1997: Mpumalanga 14-64 British & Irish Lions. Stadium: Johann van Riebeeck Stadium. Points: Tries from Rob Wainwright (3), Tony Underwood (2), Ieuan Evans (2), Nick Beal, Matt Dawson and Neil Jenkins, plus seven conversions from the latter.
– 06/07/1997: NE Transvaal 35-30 British & Irish Lions. Stadium: Loftus Versfeld. Points: Tries by Jeremy Guscott (2) and Gregor Townsend; three penalties and three conversions by Tim Stimpson.
– 06/11/1997: Golden Lions 14-20 British & Irish Lions. Stadium: Emirates Airline Park. Points: Tries by John Bentley and Austin Healey; a penalty by Mike Catt and a penalty and two conversions by Tony Underwood.
– 06/14/1997: Natal 12-42 British & Irish Lions. Stadium: King’s Park. Points: Tries by Lawrence Dallaglio, Allan Bateman and Gregor Townsend; a drop by Gregor Townsend, six penalties and three conversions by Neil Jenkins.
– 06/17/1997: Junior Springboks 22-51 British & Irish Lions. Stadium: Boland Stadium. Points: Tries from Nick Beal (3), Mike Catt, Graham Rowntree and Tim Stimpson who also scored six conversions and three penalties.
– 06/21/1997: South Africa 16-25 British & Irish Lions. Stadium: Newlands. Points: Tries by Alan Tait and Matt Dawson, and five penalties by Neil Jenkins.
– 06/24/1997: Orange Free State 30-52 British & Irish Lions. Stadium: Free State Stadium. Points: Tries by John Bentley (3), Tim Stimpson, Allan Bateman, Will Greenwood and Tony Underwood; three penalties and four conversions by Tim Stimpson.
– 06/28/1997: South Africa 15-18 British & Irish Lions. Stadium: King’s Park. Points: five penalties from Neil Jenkins and one drop from Jeremy Guscott.
– 07/01/1997: Northern Free State 39-67 British & Irish Lions. Stadium: Noord-wes Stadium. Points: Tries by Tony Underwood (3), Tim Stimpson and Simon Shaw (2); Austin Healey, Mark Regan and Neil Back; a penalty and seven conversions by Tim Stimpson.
– 07/05/1997: South Africa 35-16 British & Irish Lions. Stadium: Emirates Airline Park. Points: Try by Matt Dawson, three penalties and a conversion by Neil Jenkins.