’97, ’74 and so much more – The history of the Lions in South Africa

The history of The British & Irish Lions and South Africa are inextricably intertwined. [more]

’97, ’74 and so much more – The history of the Lions in South Africa

After all, the first ever international Test series in the sport saw the tourists take on the Springboks, all the way back in 1891.

Since then there have been 13 series in total, and many more milestones.

The first trip where the Lions nickname was coined? That was to South Africa, in 1924.

The first-ever drawn Test series? South Africa again, this time in 1955.

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The first ever Lions team to go unbeaten across an entire Tour? South Africa, of course, and the 1974 Invincibles.

The first Tour of the professional era? That was against the Springboks too, and few will forget that magisterial match-up of 1997.

These two storied rivals are, historically speaking, the most evenly-matched. The Boks have won 23 of the 46 Test matches played, the Lions have won 17 with six more draws.

The next chapter in this saga will be written in 2021, and you can be sure that yet more records are going to be broken. 

This will be the third Tour in a row to South Africa when rugby’s oldest touring team face off with the reigning world champions.

Magic moments

Where do we begin when examining the history of Lions clashes against South Africa?

There are just too many magic moments to choose from. But maybe 1997 and the first tour of the professional era. 


The Springbok aura had finally been punctured in 1974 and while Bill Beaumont’s tourists in 1980 were too injury hit to take advantage, the tables turned again in ’97.

Ian McGeechan, a class-act of a centre on that ’74 Tour, was now the head coach and the Lions were out to prove they still occupied a place in the newly professionalised international calendar.

What ensued against the world champions has been forever immortalised, first by the series win and, of course, by the Living with the Lions video that came after.

Jim Telfer’s Everest Speech, Matt Dawson’s dummy, Jeremy Guscott’s drop goal, these are moments that need no explanation to even the most casual of rugby fans. 

Matt Dawson and Jeremy Davidson celebrate the victory in the first Test

It all began with the appointment of ‘Geech’ as head coach, a man who understands the ethos of the Lions better than just about anyone.

He in turn opted for Martin Johnson as skipper, a towering physical specimen who could look the Boks in the eye from the get go.

But there were heroes wherever you looked, the technical brilliance of the Tom Smith, Keith Wood, Paul Wallace front row will go down in history.

And the rugby-league hardened professionalism of the likes of Allan Bateman and John Bentley meant the Lions pulled away late on in the first Test to claim victory.

A week later the Boks came roaring back but the unerring boot of Jenkins and then THAT Guscott drop goal entered those 1997 tourists into folklore.

The Gatland era begins

2009 was another stunning segment in the rivalry.

Geech’s last Tour, but Warren Gatland’s first, with the Lions once again hellbent on restoring their reputation after the defeat in New Zealand four years prior.

This tour is the keystone from which all modern Lions Tours have descended.

After two brutal defeats in the first two Tests however, it had been seven Test losses in a row for the tourists.

Simon Shaw’s one-man mission had not been enough to prevent Morne Steyn’s heart-breaker at Loftus Versfeld and the Lions needed something.

And at Ellis Park in that third Test, Shane Williams, Ugo Monye, Phil Vickery and co provided it, laying down a marker for the magic that has followed under Gatland, first in Australia and latterly against the All Blacks.

The Invincibles

The first three quarters of the 20th century was largely a tale of Springbok dominance.

1974 and Willie John McBride’s unbeaten legends changed all that. 

Their achievement in downing the Springboks and every provincial rival they encountered along the way was a earth-shattering.

The Battle of Boet Erasmus, the 99 Call, the drawn fourth Test. Iconic moments each and every one. 

The brilliance of the backs, led by Gareth Edwards and Phil Bennett, and the unbreakable spirit of McBride’s forwards who refused to take a backwards step and compiled a set of results that stand the test of time.

In beating South Africa they ended 78 years of hurt, breaking a run of seven Lions Tours without a series win on the high veld.


We must not write off the individual heroes that came before then though. 

There was Randolph Littleton Aston in 1891 who ran in a scarcely believable 30 tries on Tour!

And who can forget CH Cherry Pillman, the flanker who stepped in at fly-half in an injury crisis and led the Lions to a Test win over the Boks in 1910? 

And what about the 1955 drawn Test series, a feat never seen again until 2017 against the All Blacks.

The first Lions team to travel by plane, they have flown into folklore with Jack van der Schyff’s missed kick, Tony O’Reilly’s emergence and a 2-2 tied series.

In two years’ time, once again it will be the best of the British & Irish Isles against the world champions. We cannot wait. 

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