The class of 1997 created history with an 18-15 second Test win over the Springboks that still ranks as the Lions’ greatest moment of the professional era.
It was a fixture that will live long in the memory of Lions supporters young and old; a game which brought about not only a heroic result but also a stunning series victory. It was a match that defied all the odds and one that put the future of the Lions in the professional era beyond any doubt.
The 1997 Lions arrived in South Africa as massive under dogs. Written off before they had even set foot in the Republic, Ian McGeechan’s men were deemed nothing more than cannon fodder for the world champion Springboks.
Ask any South African and the answer was the same: the Lions would be too small and too weak; too unskilled and ill-disciplined to trouble their beloved Boks. The series was already won, the 3-0 margin already confirmed. All that was left was for the Boks to put on a show.
Queue the first test. Queue an incredible and unexpected Lions victory. Queue British and Irish celebrations and a South African inquest.
The Lions arrived in Durban for the second international on June 28 in confident mood. They had proved to themselves that the Boks were beatable. Now they had to show that it wasn’t a one off; that history could repeat itself and that lightning could strike twice.
They did just that in front of a crowd of more than 50,000 at the majestic King’s Park, securing an 18-15 victory thanks to a unforgiving rearguard action, an impeccable kicking display and one of the most iconic moments in rugby history.
The Boks may have outscored the Lions by three tries to nil but the tourists withstood almost constant pressure from their illustrious opponents, and while the Boks failed to hit the proverbial barn door with the boot, Neil Jenkins slotted everything in sight for a Lions side that saw its chance and grabbed it with both hands.
With the scores tied at 15-15 and with just three minutes left on the clock, Jeremy Guscott etched his name even further into Lions folklore. Dropped by England for the 1997 Six Nations but still valued by the Lions, Guscott proved his worth with time running out as his drop goal sunk Springbok hearts and reaffirmed the combined power of the four Home Nations.
SOUTH AFRICA 15 LIONS 18
Half-time: 5-6 Venue: King’s Park, Durban Attendance: 52,000
Scorers: Lions: Pens – Jenkins (5), Drop goal – Guscott; South Africa: Tries – van der Westhuizen, Montgomery, Joubert
Jerry Guscott drops the series-winning drop goal at Durban’s King’s Park
Having claimed a famous first Test victory in Cape Town a week earlier, the Lions arrived in Durban with only one change to their starting line up.
That alteration was forced upon them after Welsh international Ieuan Evans failed to recover from a groin strain that would rule him out of action for two months.
The absence of Evans paved the way for the inclusion of John Bentley in the Lions starting XV. The former Rugby League star had been an unused replacement in the opening rubber but had impressed throughout the tour.
With the exception of Bentley for Evans, McGeechan put his faith in the same players who had given the Lions a 1-0 advantage at Newlands.
Tom Smith and Paul Wallace propped down either side of Keith Wood after impressive Test debuts for the tourists. The South African media had expected the Boks to be completely dominant in the scrummage but the Lions more than held their own for the full 80 minutes of the first international.
Skipper Martin Johnson was joined in the second row by Ireland’s Jeremy Davidson, who was a surprise inclusion in the starting XV for the first Test but had been a commanding presence in the lineout.
The back row was once again an all-English affair, with No8 Tim Rodber flanked by future World Cup winners Lawrence Dallaglio and Richard Hill.
Matt Dawson continued at scrum-half after a stunning Test debut that featured a fine individual try, while Scotland’s Gregor Townsend wore the fly-half jersey, with Scott Gibbs and Guscott combining power and guile in the centres.
Bentley took his place in a back three featuring Newcastle team-mate Alan Tait and Pontypridd kicking machine Jenkins as the Lions looked for more of the same at King’s Park.
McGeechan’s six-man bench did feature two more changes to the matchday squad, however, with the Lions coach deciding to select four forwards and two backs as opposed to the three-three split he favoured the previous weekend.
Leicester back rows Neil Back and Eric Miller both stepped into the squad, with Scotland’s Rob Wainwright missing out and Bentley not being replaced like for like.
Mike Catt, Austin Healy and Barry Williams were all hoping to see game time having not made it on to the pitch first time out, while another substitute appearance from Jason Leonard would have been his fourth Test in Lions colours.
Guscott celebrates victory – in the second Test and the series
As far as the Boks were concerned, the result of the first Test may have gone against them but head coach Carel du Plessis saw no reason to panic.
The world champions were forced into three changes to their backline through injury but they saw no need to alter a single component of their beaten pack.
James Small’s injury meant there would be no repeat of his earlier tour altercation with Bentley as Pieter Roussow came into the side and Andre Snyman switched wings.
Danie van Schalkwyk and Percy Montgomery benefited from injuries to centre pairing Japie Mulder and Edrich Lubbe, with Montgomery providing what the Boks wrongly hoped would be a valuable kicking option following their first Test failures.
Scrum-half Joost van der Westhuizen and full back Andre Joubert were perhaps the stand-out backline players, while Gary Teichmann captained the side from a back row that also included hard men Ruben Kruger and Andre Venter.
A total of eight members of the South African starting XV would go on to play club rugby in England and Wales later in their careers, with Teichmann, Snyman, Montgomery, Rossouw, fly-half Henry Honiball, hooker Naka Drotske, prop Adrian Garvey and second row Mark Andrews all moving to these shores. Replacement lock Fritz van Heerden would join them by signing for Leicester Tigers, for whom he played alongside Lions captain Johnson at Welford Road.
South Africa: Andre Joubert; Andre Snyman, Percy Montgomery, Danie van Schalkwyk, Pieter Rossouw; Henry Honiball, Joost van der Westhuizen; Os du Randt, Naka Drotske, Adrian Garvey, Hannes Strydom, Mark Andrews, Ruben Kruger, Andre Venter, Gary Teichmann (captain)
Replacements: Fritz van Heerden (for Kruger, 50 minutes), Dawie Theron (for Garvey, 67 minutes)
Unused: James Dalton, Boeta Wessels, Russell Bennett, Werner Swanepoel
Lions: Neil Jenkins; John Bentley, Scott Gibbs, Jerry Guscott, Alan Tait; Gregor Townsend, Matt Dawson; Tom Smith, Keith Wood, Paul Wallace, Martin Johnson (captain), Jeremy Davidson, Lawrence Dallaglio, Richard Hill, Tim Rodber
Replacements: Neil Back (for Hill, 57 minutes), Austin Healey (for Tait 76 minutes), Eric Miller (for Rodber, 76 minutes)
Unused: Barry Williams, Jason Leonard, Mike Catt
Referee: Mr Didier Mene (France)
Guscott, Martin Johnson and Neil Jenkins enjoy the moment
The Lions expected the Boks to come at them with ferocious intent in the opening stages but even the tourists themselves admitted that nothing could have prepared them for the physical and mental onslaught they faced straight from the kick off.
The home side were handed an immediate opportunity to open the scoring inside two minutes. The Boks won possession after the Lions had kicked off and the next thing the Lions knew they were being penalised 45 metres from their line.
South Africa had set their stall out and gained exactly the kind of start they were after, or so it seemed. Up stepped Honiball to give the Boks an early lead but, instead of calming South African nerves, the future Bristol outside-half set the tone for what would be an abject kicking display from the world champions. Honiball hooked his effort wide of the posts before missing a much easier effort five minutes later as he failed to get to grips with the enormity of the occasion.
With just over a quarter-of-an-hour played Jenkins showed Honiball how to turn a penalty attempt into points as he followed up his five penalties from the opening rubber with the first of five more in Durban.
The Boks should have been level on 24 minutes when they were awarded another kickable penalty but this time it was Montgomery who failed to hit the target.
The hosts were then made to pay on the half hour as Jenkins made it 6-0 to the Lions after the Boks illegally pulled down a maul.
A perfect kicking display from Jenkins kept the Lions in the hunt
The tide appeared to have turned five minutes before half-time, however, as the Boks were finally rewarded for their dominance in terms of possession and territory. Van der Westhuizen showed why he was regarded as the world’s premier No9 at the time as he spotted a gap in the Lions defence to sneak over following a strong line out drive from Os du Randt and the rest of the South African pack.
In keeping with what had gone before, Montgomery missed the difficult conversion attempt to leave the Lions holding a one-point lead at 6-5.
If the Lions had ended the first period in disappointing fashion, they began the second in an even more frustrating manner. Just a minute after the interval, Tait passed into opposition hands and Montgomery crossed unopposed for the Bok’s second try of the match. Fortunately for the Lions, Montgomery again failed to make it a seven-point score as he missed the conversion attempt to ensure the Lions stayed within a single score at 10-6.
Another Jenkins penalty reduced the deficit to just one point seven minutes later after South Africa had been penalised for preventing the release at the breakdown but it was the hosts who then claimed what many expected to be the killer blow with 54 minutes on the clock. Andre Joubert made light work of Bentley’s attempted tackle before dotting down for his side’s third try in just 19 minutes.
Alan Tait makes yards as the Lions look for a series win with a game to spare
However, far from being the score that opened the floodgates for the Boks, Joubert’s effort would prove to be South Africa’s final scoring contribution of the game as the Lions kept their composure to somehow sneak a series win. Having seen both Honiball and Montgomery disappoint with the boot earlier on, Joubert attempted to convert his own try only to see his kick follow the same path as his team-mates’ in failing to threaten the uprights.
After 66 minutes, Jenkins again struck back with his fourth penalty after Springbok flanker AJ Venter had failed to bind at a scrum. The man who would later become the first player to reach 1,000 points in Test rugby then shocked the South African support by bringing the Lions level with yet another penalty seven minutes from time.
Despite severe pressure from the Springboks, the Lions found a way to shut them out throughout the closing stages. The scene was therefore set for Guscott’s moment of glory; a JFK moment of recent Lions history if you like. A moment that some 12 years later the Lions have still been unable to replicate.
The platform for Guscott’s series-winning intervention came from an unusual source, although having witnessed Lions hooker Wood’s penchant for kicking before and since, perhaps his hefty boot downfield should not have come as a surprise. Not content with simply hacking the ball into Springbok territory, Wood produced an enthusiastic, committed and well-timed chase that forced Joubert to side foot the ball into touch.
Keith Wood kicks ahead to set the platform for Guscott’s moment of glory
From there, the Lions won the lineout, set up a driving maul and gave Matt Dawson time to fire out a pass from which Guscott dropped for glory.
The England centre, whose record with the boot was far from prolific, has since suggested that he saw a look of terror on Dawson’s face as the scrum-half realised it was Guscott and not half-back partner Townsend waiting to receive his pass.
Either way, it made no difference. Dawson hit his man and Guscott did the rest. The Lions then hung on, fighting off fierce South African pressure, just as they had done throughout a pulsating 80 minutes in one of the most memorable Test matches in Lions history.
WHAT THEY SAID
Jerry Guscott (Lions centre)
“If you’d seen me spraying drop-kicks all over the pitch in training during the previous week – off the outside of my foot, off the inside of my foot, off the end of my toes – you would have bet as much money on me putting it over as you would on a one-legged man in a backside-kicking competition.
“The moment is frozen in time in my memory. Probably because freezing was what was most on my mind. As the ball drifted towards me through the arc of the floodlights everything seemd to happen in slow-motion. I prayed it wouldn’t miss. I prayed it wouldn’t be charged down. The sense of elation I felt when I eventually looked up and saw the drop soar between the posts will stay with me forever.”
Fran Cotton (Lions tour manager)
“It was pandemonium when the final whistle blew. By the time I got down to the dressing room my legs were like jelly but I managed to galvanise them sufficiently to join the rest of the management team and the players who hadn’t been involved in the game to rush on to the pitch.
“It was a very emotional moment for everybody. When you put so much effort into something you don’t always get your just rewards. On that occasion the players got their rewards for all the hard work and the way they had all adapted to what we, as a management team, had asked of them. What made it all the sweeter was the knowledge that not many people had given us a chance of winning a Test series in South Africa.”
Scott Gibbs (Lions centre)
“I think there was an element that this squad was different, this management was different, and all those elements came together to create one playing entity.
“There was never anyone who felt alienated in any way. That’s a true strength of a squad, that inward support from everybody. That was there in abundance in ’97 and that was why it was so successful on the field and off the field. We made a lot of friendships and there was never one clique.”
Scott Gibbs was one of the heroes of the 1997 tour of South Africa
Rob Andrew (double Lions tourist writing in Rugby World magazine)
“Playing Test matches is all about finding a way to win – it all comes down to having the character to succeed. It’s about saying to yourself, ‘Somehow we are going to win this, we are not giving up’.
“That’s exactly what the Lions did to win a remarkable victory in Durban. They had far less possession and far less territorial advantage than the Springboks, but they pushed the text books aside, put their heads down and produced a game of thrust and counter thrust.
“Neil Jenkins was fantastic. His kicking was immaculate. He was forced to absorb an immense amount of pressure under the high balls that were reigning down on him – but he still managed to calm himself enough to plant every one of his kicks.
“The team deserve the highest praise for coming through an ultimate mental and physical challenge.”
THE LIONS IN DURBAN:
The Lions have played 16 fixtures in Durban having toured South Africa on the same number of occasions to date.
The venue did not feature on either of the first two Lions tours to the country in 1891 and 1896 but has been on the itinerary ever since, although only four Test matches between the Lions and Springboks have been played in the city.
The 26-21 loss to the Boks in 2009 was the Lions’ third defeat in internationals in Durban, with their only victory coming 12 years ago when the 18-15 success clinched a stunning series triumph.
The Lions’ only other loss in the city came against Northern Province back in 1938, with the Lions winning all eight of their games against Natal in Durban.
P 16 W 12 L 4 D 0
1903: Durban 0 Lions 22
1910: Natal 13 Lions 19
1924: South Africa 7 Lions 3
1938: Northern Province 26 Lions 8
1955: Central Universities 14 Lions 21
Natal 8 Lions 11
1962: Natal 3 Lions 13
South Africa 3 Lions 0
1968: Natal 5 Lions 17
1974: Natal 6 Lions 34
1980: Natal 15 Lions 21
South African Barbarians 14 Lions 25
1997: Natal 12 Lions 42
South Africa 15 Lions 18
2009: Sharks 3 Lions 39
South Africa 26 Lions 21