Mark Keohane, on IOL, writes that what made the 1955 British & Irish Lions tour to South Africa so significant was that it was the first time the Lions visited after World War Two. What made it unique was that the Lions didn’t just tour South Africa, but they also played in Southern and East Africa.
Among the 1955 tourists was the 19 year-old Irishman Tony O’Reilly, who in just four Tests for Ireland had convinced the Lions selectors that he was good and old enough to take on the hard men of South African rugby.
O’Reilly’s business career has known as much fame as his international rugby career and today Sir Tony O’Reilly is recognized as one of Ireland’s most innovative and successful business people and in South Africa is also remembered as the former chairman and CEO of Independent News and Media PLC. He was also inducted into World Rugby’s Hall of Fame in 2009.
‘The South Africa tour of 1955 changed my life and I was never the same afterwards. I never had such an insular view of South Africa thereafter. We thought that everything which related to the British Isles was very important, but out there (in South Africa) it wasn’t,’ O’Reilly told Independent Media.
Socially more aware, the 19 year-old also thrived in the near perfect South African playing conditions.
He would score 16 tries in 15 matches in South Africa and four years later score 22 tries on the Lions tour of Australia, New Zealand and Canada.
But it was in South Africa in 1955 that O’Reilly confirmed his status as the new golden boy of Lions rugby.
‘To me it was the sights and sounds, training in your bare feet with the sun on your back, which was overwhelming because it was the first country that I had gone to.’
O’Reilly recalled the travel itinerary just to get to South Africa back then: ‘We flew out to Rome, then Cairo, Khartoum to Nairobi to Salisbury and then Johannesburg. It was an epic voyage and it was a voyage of discovery for me. I fell in love with the sights.’
O’Reilly, a few years ago, was famously quoted as saying: ‘If you asked what I want to come back as, I want to come back as a South African and the reason is because it is the most exciting country in the world.’
But back in 1955, O’Reilly was still all Irish and all Lion, when it came to rugby. He wanted to be part of a team that could (and would) beat the giant Springboks, the core of whose players in 1951 were anointed ‘The Invincibles’ because of their performances on tour in Europe.
The Lions of 1955 would play 25 matches, with four Tests against the Springboks and matches against the then Rhodesia (Zimbabwe), South West Africa (Namibia) and the tour finale against East Africa in Nairobi.
The Lions stunned the Springboks with a dramatic one-point first Test win after an indifferent and inconsistent start to the tour when provincial teams Western Transvaal and Eastern Province beat them. The EP, at the Crusaders ground, was particularly memorable as the tourists were beaten 20-0.
That first Test is also infamous, if you are a South African, for Springbok fullback and ace goalkicker Jack van der Schyff missing a kick that would have won the Test for the Springboks.
‘It was the last minute of the game. It was quite an easy one and he was a very good kicker but he just pushed it left,’ said O’Reilly. ‘I remember Cliff Morgan turned to me and said: ‘God, I am glad I have been to church this morning.’
The Lions and the Springboks would draw the series 2-all, which was – and remains – the only time a series has been drawn between the two teams.
Interestingly, the Lions triumphed 23-22 at Ellis Park, Johannesburg and 9-6 at Loftus Versfeld, Pretoria, when they were expected to struggle at altitude. The friendlier coastal conditions, which many felt would help the visitors, proved inspiring venues for the Springboks who won the second Test 25-9 at Newlands in Cape Town and the final Test 22-8 in Port Elizabeth.
Border would also claim the famous Lions head and Eastern Transvaal drew 17-all. A characteristic of the tour was how close so many matches were against provincial and invitation teams, which underlined the quality and depth among South Africa’s player base.
Fast forward to 2021 and many are predicting that the Lions 2021 visit, in which they play three Tests, three matches against Super Rugby teams and two against Invitational Teams, will also be as closely contested.
Back in the Day…
British & Irish Lions 1955
Played 25, won 19, lost 5 and drew one.
L v Western Transvaal 9-6
B Griquas 24-14
B Northern Universities 32-6
B Orange Free State 31-3
B South West Africa 9-0
B Western Province 11-3
B South Western Districts 22-3
L Eastern Province 20-0
B North Eastern District 34-6
B Transvaal 36-13
B Rhodesia 27-14
B Rhodesia 16-12
B Springboks 23-22
B Central University 21-14
B Boland 11-0
B Western Province Universities 20-17
L Springboks 25-9
D Eastern Transvaal 17-all
B Northern Transvaal 14-11
B Springboks 9-6
B Natal 11-8
B Junior Springboks 15-12
L Border 14-12
L Springboks 22-8
B East Africa 39-12
Classic Lions moment…
Englishman Jeremy Guscott dropped in to sink the Springboks in Durban’s 1997 second Test and win the series for the Lions.
Guscott, who alongside Wales’s Scott Gibbs were imposing as a midfield, turned to the unlikely route of the boot for his most cherished moment in a Lions jersey.
The Springboks scored three tries but missed every kick and the Lions didn’t score a try but converted every kick, with the most crucial being Guscott’s drop goal.
It was a sweet reward for Guscott and the Lions after they weren’t given a chance of beating the Springboks.
‘I was pissed off that no-one gave us a chance,’ Guscott said in media interviews after the tour. ‘I don’t know why. The attitude purveyed to us by the South African media and players, and several from back home, was to be prepared for a thrashing. We were called pussycats the whole tour. The public were very hospitable but they took it for granted that the Springboks would win.’
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