A fervid rugby rivalry cherished by a Lions fanatic and his Springbok-supporting son, Mark Keohane remembers his late father’s last words on the 2021 tour. ‘The next one is ours’. And by that he meant the British & Irish Lions.
My late father was from the north of England, my grandfather was from the valleys of Wales and my great grandfather was from Cork, & Ireland. When the British & Irish Lions came to South Africa, it was something of a homecoming for my old man.
He lived most of his adult life in South Africa and New Zealand but Daniel Alfred Keohane was all British & Irish Lion.
I was just six years old when Willie John McBride’s 1974 Invincibles tortured the soul of every South African rugby supporter. I don’t remember much from the tour other than the disbelief I would see on the faces of local grown men every time the Springboks lost.
Willie John … JPR Williams and JJ Williams … those were the names in 1974 that made the old man beam.
In 1980, I was 12 years-old and very much into the Lions being in South Africa. It was a huge occasion for the family and we got to see the Lions play in Stellenbosch and at Newlands against Western Province. The Lions won both matches and my father was very chipper on the way home.
We couldn’t get a ticket to the Newlands Test match but our lounge room was as good as being at the ground for a Test series the old man was convinced his beloved Lions couldn’t lose. He would gift me one Springboks Test victory on the basis that the class of 1980, while good, were not in the class of Willie John’s 1974 super men.
I loved being old enough in 1980 to appreciate having the Lions in South Africa and I was intrigued by the coming together of four home unions. I had grown up with stories of the Arms Park, in particular, and of the Lions and Welsh teams of the 1970s. I was versed in the history of the Lions. In our household, there was no other way. My scrapbook attested to my passion for the Lions and the posters of the Springboks on my bedroom wall spoke to my love for the men in green and gold.
The old man had bemoaned the first two Test defeats at Newlands and Bloemfontein. Tony Ward had given him hope in Cape Town, but the strain was evident after the Boks led the series two-nil. The third Test at Boet Erasmus Stadium in Port Elizabeth would determine the Lions’ fate and my father was convinced that Lions flyhalf Ollie Campbell would be sending me to bed with tears still streaming. I had faith in Naas Botha.
Our afternoon played out with a crazed inevitability. Naas was brilliant in kicking a penalty, a drop goal and a touchline conversion. It bucketed with rain in Port Elizabeth and, in the mud and slush of Boet Erasmus, Ollie Campbell missed with a kick for victory.
The old man cursed Campbell with profanities I hadn’t heard. He cursed everything about the Lions flyhalf in that moment and I do believe he may have gone to his grave having never forgiven Campbell for missing a kick at the Boet. He did however acknowledge that Naas could kick, although he used more of a descriptive than Naas’s name.
The old man was back in New Zealand in 1997 when Neil Jenkins kicked five penalties, Scott Gibbs ran over Os du Randt and Jerry Guscott’s drop goal beat the Springboks in Durban. I was in the press seats, this time writing about it. I called him before he could call me. He appreciated my grace but he knew how much I was hurting.
In 2009 he texted me before I could call him.
‘Great series, great occasion, great kick. F*** World Cups … there’s nothing greater than the Lions playing the Springboks in South Africa. The next one is ours.’
And by ‘ours’ he meant the British & Irish Lions.
*I wrote the column for the Lions official Tour Magazine, produced by Highbury Media.