The British & Irish Lions overcame the Springboks in this classic match in 1910 to bounce back from a first Test defeat in which they had been without a number of players including captain Tommy Smyth.
The band of 26 Lions led by Tour Manager William Cail and captain Smyth were not fancied came in as underdogs for the second Test in the 24-match Tour.
However the tourists put in an outstanding performance in Port Elizabeth, led by Cherry Pillman – flanker turned playmaker – to secure their first win over the Springboks in South Africa since 1896.
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Tour manager William Cail selected a squad of 26 players that included a then record seven from a single club, Newport.
It was a record that stood for almost a century until Leicester Tigers provided eight Lions to Sir Clive Woodward’s squad in 2005.
Captain Dr Tommy Smyth, who was the first of ten Irish Tour skippers, plied his club trade at Newport alongside six internationals who were selected and the Irish prop scored two tries in the opening Lions victory over South Western Districts.
The only survivor from the 1908 Tour Jack Jones led the side out in the first test in Johannesburg in Smyth’s absence due to injury and reached the top of the Lions appearances table with 41 – leveling Englishman Frank Stout.
In what proved to be the final Lions Tour before the First World War, several outstanding players that donned the red in 1910 went on to lose their lives in battle.
Welshmen Noel Humphreys and Phil Waller as well as Scottish scrum-half Eric Milroy were all killed in action. The latter arrived halfway through the Tour
to South Africa after taking his final exams for a Mathematics degree at Edinburgh University.
Back row forward Charles ‘Cherry’ Pillman’s exemplary performances in South Africa would revolutionise the position formerly known as ‘wing forward’ with his defence on the opposition’s fly-half key to his game.
THE BUILD UP
The Lions hopes of getting the three-match test series off to a winning start in Kimberley were dealt a blow when Pillman and captain Smyth were both ruled out through injury – after playing 18 Tour matches to that point – the Lions were bound to suffer physically.
The tourists lost the first test 14-10 with the hosts ending the game with just 14 men after Springbok centre Jack Hirsch left the field with a career-ending broken leg.
Between the first and second tests, the Lions secured two wins and two draws against provincial sides and arrived in Port Elizabeth with the added boost of Smyth and Pillman back fit.
The latter had made his England debut a week before his 20th birthday and became known as a rugby revolutionary in South Africa.
Pillman, the Blackheath loose forward, was handed the kicking responsibilities from the start of the Tour, despite not being a recognised kicker and scored 65 points in total but injury forced him to miss the first Test and six provincial matches.
He was unexpectedly selected to play at fly-half for the second Test in what was a must-win match for the Lions having gone 1-0 down in the series.
As well as the new concept of wing forwards, Smyth’s men were credited as being the first side in South Africa to introduce fixed half-back positions rather than the previously used left and right system.
The Lions were underdogs approaching the second Test and the team knew they would have to perform out of their skin to match the Springboks and claim the first Lions victory over South Africa since 1896.
With Pillman selected at fly-half, the Springboks did not quite know what to expect from the tourists, and they did not disappoint.
While Pillman excelled at fly-half, just as important was the performance of the Lions pack, who were marshalled by scrum-half George Isherwood and were able to dominate their South African counterparts.
Despite a heroic first 40 minutes by the men in red, they found themselves 3-0 down at the break playing against a strong wind after a try by South African winger Wally Mills.
Pillman engineered both of his team’s second-half match-winning tries, the first was a kick over Percy Allport’s head that fell into the path of winger John Spoors to cross the whitewash and draw the tourists level.
The second, scored by winger Maurice Neale was again started by Pillman, who earned plaudits from his South African opponents throughout the Tour.
Pillman converted his side’s second try and the match was won 8-3 for the Lions’ first Test victory since the series whitewash of Australia four years earlier.
WHAT THEY SAID
Springbok captain Billy Millar was so impressed by Pillman’s performances in the 26-match tour particularly in the second test at fly-half that he wrote about his exploits years after the Tour, as recorded in The Official History of the British and Irish Lions.
Millar said: “I confidently assert that if ever a man can have been said to have won an international match through his unorthodox and lonehanded efforts. It can be said of the inspired, black-haired Pillman I played against on the Crusaders Ground on 27 August 1910, when the ‘Rover’ played as fly-half, mark you, not as a forward.”
AFTER THE MATCH
With the series poised at one apiece, all eyes were on Newlands in Cape Town for the deciding rubber. Unfortunately for the Lions, full-back Samuel Williams was taken off injured inside ten minutes forcing the tourists to play with 14 men.
They struggled to cope with their numerical disadvantage and eventually went down 21-5 as the Springboks claimed the series victory.
Spoors dotted down for the Lions maintaining his record of scoring in each of the three Test matches, the try was converted by Pillman.
South Africa 3 British and Irish Lions 8
27 August 1910, Port Elizabeth
South Africa (3) 3
British and Irish Lions (0) 8
Tries: Spoors, Neale
South Africa: Percy Allport, Wally Mills, Dick Luyt, Dirkie de Villiers, Cocky Hahn, Lammetjie Luyt, Clive van Ryneveld, Toby Moll, Henry walker, Bingo Burger, Antonie Lombard, Cliff Riordan, Noel Howe-Browne, Gideon Roos, Billy Millar
British and Irish Lions: Samuel Williams, Alexander Foster, Jack Jones, Jack Spoors (T), Maurice Neale (T), Cherry Pillman (C), George Isherwood, Fenton Smith, Robert Stevenson, Tom Smyth (capt), Frank Handford, Harry Jarman, Jim Webb, Rusty Richards, Phil Waller
Referee: RW Stanton