On This Day: Wing wonder Tait recalls 97 opening Test triumph
With one series victory in South Africa in 100 years and the world champions primed for action many had the 1997 British & Irish Lions as underdogs – little did they know what was to transpire.
On this day 23 years ago the Lions struck a stinging blow from which ultimately the Springboks would never recover, an opening Test victory that generated unforgettable moments from Matt Dawson’s dummy to Jim Telfer’s legendary ‘Everest’ speech.
The man who put the game to bed that day was the irrepressible Alan Tait, a Scotland centre shifted to the wing for the most fearsome of all Tests.
We caught up with the 55-year-old dual-code international to get his emotional memories from that day, and found him yearning for rugby’s return but just as busy as ever.
“I’m right in the Borders, in the Cheviot Hills in a little village with 1,000-odd people. There’s very few of us about but everybody knows each other which I love,” said Tait, who upon hanging up his boots in 2000 coached with Scotland, Borders and Newcastle Falcons.
“The rugby’s a big miss for me at the moment because of my job, I work for the SRU as a talent scout so I go and watch all the youngsters, Under-18s and things so obviously that’s been done for a few months.
“It’s a real shame, there’s a lot of staff furloughed at the SRU and I’m hopeful school and grassroots rugby doesn’t take too long to come back.
“We’re not really supposed to leave our houses further than five miles at the moment, old Nicola Sturgeon looking after us all.
“But I’m doing plenty of days on the bike, walking the dogs, doing my gym routine in the house, I’ve always been a keen trainer, I’m probably lighter than when I played!”
Tait was in prime condition at the time of the 1997 Tour, steeped in the subtle skills of rugby league from his days with Widnes, Leeds, Great Britain and Scotland, before switching codes back to union on a meteoric trajectory with Newcastle Falcons and Scotland.
Tait’s prolific form with Scotland – his record impressively reads 17 tries in 27 games – propelled him to South Africa and the ensuing selection battles from eight provincial matches.
“The Tours were different back then but we’d played quite a few games before that first Test and you roughly get an idea of the team selection, you wanted to have staked your claim well before then,” continued Tait, who would go on to win the Premiership title with Newcastle in 1998.
“In those provincial games I’d played at No.12, on the left wing, the right wing, so I was jumping around a lot and not really playing my strongest position at 13. You wonder to yourself, will you be involved in that first Test?
“But then Geech (Sir Ian McGeechan) slipped me onto left wing against the Sharks the week before and we ran them off the park. That was his belief all along – he wanted to run South Africa ragged until they couldn’t get their big units into place.
“He always encouraged us wingers to get involved, off your wing, round the openside.
“There was a good buzz after that game, we all clicked, unfortunately Rob Howley got injured and he was a great, great player, that was probably the only downer because he would’ve started.
“But we put a marker down, put 40 points on them (the Lions won 42-12 in Durban) and ran the Sharks off their feet, without being too confident in yourself you think you could be in.
“We got the letters down in Cape Town of who was in the team, I was sharing with Will Greenwood at the time who wasn’t capped for England then. I saw the disappointment on his face when he got his letter and wasn’t in but then found out I was left wing, it was a great moment to know you’d be involved.”
Going into the Test series, the Springboks were the reigning world champions with big-match players such as Joost van der Westhuizen, Gary Teichmann, Andre Joubert and Os du Randt.
Howley had indeed dislocated his shoulder in that warm-up against the Sharks and a lively cameo from Dawson convinced McGeechan and his coaching staff to place the No.9 responsibility on the 24-year-old’s shoulders.
That decision led to history being made, as did the spine-tingling speech made by Telfer to his 11 forwards at 11am on the morning of the 21st. Ruthless ferocity from both packs ensued.
Tait continued: “Aye you knew you were in a game! You knew that for sure! You’re out on the wing and you have to do your best to get in the game, but certainly you could see their forwards scrumming hard and coming round the corner.
“Our forwards matched them as well, it was a toe-to-toe battle up front and obviously when they were going out into the backs with people like Henry Honiball they were very dangerous, but we did manage to snuff them out.
“I think that was Geech’s plan, Jerry Guscott was in the centre with Gibbsy (Scott Gibbs), Gregor (Townsend) was there, Ieuan Evans was on the other wing and Jenks (Neil Jenkins) was at full-back.
“Jenks wasn’t a renowned full-back and I wasn’t a renowned wing so I thought South Africa might pick on us there, and they did do a couple of times.
“I remember once off a scrum Van der Westhuizen picked and came round, put it through his boot and I was beat for love nor money! Jenks had read it perfectly and dealt with it but they’d obviously practised it, I remember thinking we were getting tested.”
The Lions were certainly being given an examination, the bullocking Du Randt going over on 23 minutes, Russell Bennett following his lead on 44 minutes but Jenkins’ boot keeping the tourists in the game.
A fifth penalty from Jenkins cut the deficit to 16-15 going into the final quarter and in those 20 minutes the Lions pounced – Dawson, Tait, the rest is history.
“As we clawed our way back into the game I think the philosophy that Geech had outlined began to work – that we’d be fitter than them, we’ll keep running when they can’t,” he added.
“I think that’s what won us that Test, we just kept pounding away and we got those little offloads going.
“Matt’s try was a bit of magic, throwing that dummy and he slipped in, and then obviously I put the cherry on top in the last few minutes.
“I remember it was a great run by Gibbsy that got us that yardage, and then Tim Rodber, of all players, I’d never seen him offload before!
“He got that ball away because he knew what we’d practised for six weeks, keeping the ball alive, I was lucky enough to be on the end, Jenks’ ear will still be hurting now the way I was shouting for the pass!
“I put it down and just thought ‘we’ve won it’, you knew that was it, we’d won the Test. I looked towards the crowd and done my pistol gunfire thing – I don’t know where that came from!
“I turned around, I could see all the players celebrating, I looked towards the Lions fans and it was just a sight to behold, we’d got the first Test and we were right in the battle.”
SOUTH AFRICA (8) 16, BRITISH & IRISH LIONS (9) 25 (DHL Newlands Stadium)
South Africa: Andre Joubert; James Small, Japie Mulder, Edrich Lubbe(P), Andre Snyman; Henry Honiball(P), Joost van der Westhuizen; Os du Randt(T), Naka Drotske, Adrian Garvey; Hannes Strydom, Mark Andrews; Ruben Kruger, Andre Venter, Gary Teichmann (capt).
Bench: Russell Bennett(T), Boeta Wessels, Werner Swanepoel, Krynauw Otto, James Dalton, Dawie Theron.
Replacements used: Bennett for Lubbe 40.
British & Irish Lions: Neil Jenkins(5P); Ieuan Evans, Jerry Guscott, Scott Gibbs, Alan Tait(T); Gregor Townsend, Matt Dawson(T); Tom Smith, Keith Wood, Paul Wallace; Martin Johnson (capt), Jeremy Davidson; Lawrence Dallaglio, Richard Hill, Tim Rodber.
Bench: Jason Leonard, John Bentley, Mike Catt, Austin Healey, Barry Williams, Rob Wainwright.
Replacements used: Leonard for Smith 80.
Scoring sequence: 3′ Lubbe E. (P) 3-0, 7′ Jenkins N.R. (P) 3-3, 23′ Du Randt J.P. (T) 8-3, 33′ Jenkins N.R. (P) 8-6, 36′ Jenkins N.R. (P) 8-9, 42′ Jenkins N.R. (P) 8-12, 43′ Bennett R.G. (T) 13-12, 48′ Honiball H.W. (P) 16-12, 61′ Jenkins N.R. (P) 16-15, 72′ Dawson M.J.S. (T) 16-20, 80′ Tait A.V. (T) 16-25.
Referee: Colin Hawke (New Zealand)