British & Irish Lions History: Since 1888

British & Irish Lions History: Since 1888

1997 – Historic series win in South Africa

A hugely memorable Tour, their second victory in South Africa from 100 years of trying, was one of the Lions greatest tactical successes as they won the Test series 2-1.

1997 – McGeechan in charge for third time

Geech 1997

The first Lions of the professional age saw the tourists travel to Rugby World Cup winners South Africa for the first time since 1980.

Sir Ian McGeechan coached the side for an unprecedented third time, with England second row Martin Johnson becoming the first English captain of the Lions since Bill Beaumont.

Fran Cotton – a three-time Lion including two visits to South Africa – took on the figurehead role of manager.

McGeechan took six former rugby league players – Allan Bateman, Scott Gibbs, John Bentley, Alan Tait, Dai Young and Scott Quinnell – in an attempt to fast-track the squad into more professional disciplines.

The Lions made an instant impression winning all four of their opening Tour games including a 64-14 thrashing of Mpumalanga.

A marker was laid down in their opening clash of the Tour as McGeechan put together one of his most famous speeches of all.

After defeat to Northern Transvaal, the tourists beat Gauteng 20-15 thanks to a 70-yard try from Bentley which set the tone for what was to come.

The Lions had won five of their opening six warm-up games when they arrived in Durban for the unofficial fourth Test against Currie Cup holders Natal at King’s Park.

It became a defining match of the Tour as Gregor Townsend, Mike Catt and Lawrence Dallaglio all scored tries and were complimented by the superlative kicking of Jenkins who kicked 24 points.

Jenkins’ six penalties and three conversions helped secure his spot at full-back for the first Test ahead of pre-Tour favourite Stimpson.

The First Test

The build-up to the first Test is famous for Jim Telfer’s Everest speech to the forwards and in the front of over 50,000 spectators in Cape Town it was Martin Johnson, Lawrence Dallaglio and Keith Wood who had the tourists’ pack on the front foot.

But it was Matt Dawson, selected ahead of Austin Healey following the injury to Rob Howley, who ended up dealing South Africa the crucial blow.

After an early exchange of penalties Os du Randt barged his way over for the first try but pin-point kicking off the tee from Neil Jenkins saw the Lions lead 9-8 at half-time.

Replacement wing Russell Bennett crossed the whitewash in the second-half and the hosts led 16-15 on the hour mark.

It was then that Dawson’s incredible intervention, a solo run down the blindside saw him break free before a one-handed dummy fooled four South African defenders allowing him to score in the corner.

A further try from Scotland winger Alan Tait in the opposite corner with just a minute left on the clock saw the Lions seal a memorable 25-16 win.  

The Second Test

The second Test was played at King’s Park in Durban and, in a similar way to the first, the South Africans came out all guns blazing.

The hosts scored three tries – through Joost van der Westhuizen, debutant Percy Montgomery and Andre Joubert – to the Lions’ none but missed all six of their kicks at goal and found Jenkins, once again, continually pegging them back with each of five vital penalties.

With three minutes to play and the scores level at 15-15, Lions hooker Wood’s kick from his own half left the hosts’ defence no option but to concede a line-out in their 22.

Guscott drop 1997

Following the line-out, Gregor Townsend was brought down short of the line but the ball was recycled and passed to inside centre Jeremy Guscott who coolly dropped the goal that put the Lions 18-15 ahead and secured an unassailable 2-0 series lead.

The Third Test

With the series secured and the tourists’ injuries continuing to pile up, five changes were made for the final Test which South Africa won 35-16 with three tries to the Lions’ one.

Keith Wood 1997

But the defeat, just their second in 13 Tour fixtures, didn’t prevent celebrations from the men in red who had a historic 2-1 series victory to their name.

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