Jeremy Guscott celebrates after kicking the winning drop goal in the second Test
Credit: Allsport UK
What is your favourite moment from the 1997 Lions tour of South Africa? Everybody has one – the challenge is narrowing it down.
Take your pick from John Bentley’s try against Gauteng Lions, Martin Johnson’s stitched-up face, “This is your Everest”, Matt Dawson’s dummy, the Jeremy Guscott drop goal, ‘Wonderwall’ being belted out in celebration from one claustrophobic, victorious changing room to the next.
These are tales stitched into rugby folklore which, given the magnitude of the Lions’ victory over the 1995 World Cup champions, all deserve to be revisited.
Watching the accompanying ‘Living With Lions’ documentary is perhaps the closest thing rugby union has to studying a religious text. Twenty-six years later, with our improved understanding of the risks posed by not only concussion but all injuries, the spectacle of those 13 matches held within six weeks almost seems barbaric.
Fran Cotton, the Lions tour manager, certainly wasn’t lying when he stressed to the players who had not previously played in South Africa prior to the Lions’ arrival: “This ain’t no f—— holiday”.
As it turned out, the 1997 tour actually was a glorious moment in the team’s history, just their third Test series win in South Africa and first for over 20 years. The current touring party of 2021 have matched their predecessors from 1997 by winning the vital first Test against the Springboks last weekend.
Yet there was also a double significance: this was the first tour after rugby turned professional, and yet it still carried many of the vestiges of the amateur era. Tours afterwards were never quite the same; and none have become as storied.
Crates of Holsten – and good cop, bad cop
Ask any of the ’97 Lions for their abiding memories of the tour build-up in the Surrey stockbroker belt and most will revolve around the image of players perched precariously on towers of empty crates of Holsten lager, high up in trees, strapped in with a safety harness.
This was just one of the daily team-bonding activities organised by the Lions management, as they set about trying to turn a leafy corner of Weybridge into the perfect place to prepare for the rigours of the Highveld.
In Cotton, and the two senior coaches, Sir Ian McGeechan and Jim Telfer, there was a deep knowledge of what made a successful Lions tour, and where the various pitfalls lay. Cotton had toured three times as a player, and McGeechan twice before becoming head coach of the Lions in 1989 and 1993. Telfer had also been head coach of the Lions himself, the tour before McGeechan in 1983.
“At Weybridge, we had an afternoon where Fran and I asked the players how they wanted to be managed. I had written down from previous experiences all the things that can go wrong on the tour and how, looking at it from a distance, we wanted to manage that,” McGeechan explains.
Those discussions led to the decision to post envelopes under each player’s bedroom door informing them whether they had been selected for the Test side, and for each non-selected player to approach those who had been picked, shake their hand and congratulate them. From the off there was an air of collective responsibility, ensuring there was as little separation as possible among the squad when it came to who had been selected for which fixture.
Lions roar supreme over Springboks
“The ethos was that there were no midweek and Saturday teams – we were a squad,” explains Rob Wainwright, the former Scotland flanker. “Obviously, cohorts formed, but the tour kept itself as a single entity, which was so important. The spirit has been rhapsodised about a lot, but it was a striking feature that we did keep the whole tour entity working together.”
The combination of McGeechan and Telfer, having worked together to secure Scotland’s 1990 Grand Slam victory in the Five Nations, was a proven recipe for success.
“Two different characters, definitely good cop and bad cop, but they worked really well together,” explains Alan Tait, the former Scotland wing. “They’re both really passionate about rugby. Jim had the forwards and they were never allowed to slack; every scrum, line-out, contact area, they had to be switched on. He had them on point. Geech was the thinker, the brains behind it all, the emotional guy. You felt it when he spoke, the passion he had for the Lions.”
Backing them up in the dressing room was Martin Johnson, a somewhat surprising choice as captain over Wales skipper Ieuan Evans, given Johnson had yet to lead England.
“He was more action than words as a captain,” Tait recalls. “I had just come from rugby league six months before that, playing with the greatest player I had ever played with, Ellery Hanley. Johnson was exactly the same. He didn’t say much but when he spoke you listened, but more than anything it was on the field where he led, from the front. His leadership on the pitch was something I thought put him right up there with the greats.”
A wardrobe malfunction
Even for someone as well-versed in the Lions as McGeechan, 1997 felt different. “It was the watershed tour. We were just into professionalism and it was the first time the really strong link between team and supporters was obvious.”
The players became acutely aware of that once they had touched down in South Africa and early results went well. “You could see this crescendo of interest," recalled Matt Dawson, the scrum-half. "We were creating reason to believe we could win the Test series and more fans were flying down and buying tickets. Celebrating with the fans in the bars, sharing drinks and food – that will always stand out. To witness that shift in the story of the Lions was quite unique.”
Early victories against an Eastern Province XV in Port Elizabeth and Border in East London set a tone, the only malfunctions being recorded in the wardrobe department: the Lions’ shorts had a nasty habit of disintegrating under pressure and stronger pairs had to be ordered in.
Jeremy Guscott makes a break to score the first try of the tour
Credit: David Rogers/ALLSPORT
The first major test came against Western Province in Cape Town, where Johnson was handed his first tour starts. This was the game where the Lions began to crystallise, threatening off every kick return as the visitors won 38-21. “Some really good throwing rugby. The expectation was a lot of kicks would be going onto our full-backs and we would build a lot of our style around counter-attacking,” Wainwright explained.
McGeechan was pleased with the victory, but more significant was the attitude shown by his skipper. “I always remember at the press conference when Martin Johnson was asked ‘why didn’t you close the game up with 10 minutes to go when you were 15 points ahead’," he remembered. “He said: ‘We’re playing a game that takes us 80 minutes to play.’ There was no backing off. When your captain is saying that, you know what is being said on the field is about keeping the momentum and intensity. As a coach you couldn’t have asked for more.
“We said openly, collectively, that if we felt we were in the games in the last 20 minutes, we would win them. We felt we could keep playing at an intensity where other teams wouldn’t be able to stay with us.”
Telfer, marshalling the forwards, was less content. The Lions were unbeaten but up front in the set-piece, they were still struggling. It was a pivotal moment for the pack. “From now on, a page is turned,” Telfer told them. “Let’s be f—— honest, we’ve been second best. The kid gloves are off. It’s bareknuckle f——- stuff.”
Court-room carousing and a split eye
In hindsight, even this triumphant tour had a turning point. It came after the Lions had been forced to deal with two significant set-backs: a tour-ending injury to Doddie Weir, whose medial ligament ruptured after his leg was stamped on by Marius Bosman (remarkably the South African was merely fined, not banned), and a defeat to Northern Transvaal at Loftus Versfeld.
The Lions needed a response four days later at Ellis Park against the Gauteng Lions, but at half-time they were trailing again and the tour was in danger of emulating those flimsy adidas shorts.
The moment crisis was averted came with 15 minutes left when Bentley took Neil Jenkins’ pass outside his own 22 and set off on a breathless, brilliant run which saw him slalom past seven increasingly despairing Gauteng defenders and cross under the posts. The Lions duly close out the win, with the big celebrations post-match telling their own story.
John Bentley rounds James Dalton to score a memorable try
Credit: David Rogers/ALLSPORT
“It was a midweek team who got the tour back on, and I remember us getting clapped off at the end by the guys who had played on Saturday,” Tait recalled. "There was an amazing feeling of the whole tour party getting the ship back on course."
From then on, the Lions began to feel invincible. Natal, the defending Currie Cup champions, were swatted aside by – as McGeechan puts it – "some incredible rugby”, while Johnson made his own bid for immortality by returning to the field to complete the game despite having a deep gash under his eye.
The team social that followed – the infamous ‘court’, presided over by bewigged Keith Wood – was thankfully documented on camera, the Irishman administering punishments for ‘crimes’ including Tim Rodber’s use of a mobile phone in the stands. McGeechan was sanctioned by having to down a sizable glass of Scotch. “It’s a good job I like whisky. It wasn’t bad, actually,” he laughs now looking back.
A dummy for the ages
In hindsight, the first Test – and possibly the tour – was decided in two places. The first was the bland, carpeted conference room at the team hotel in Cape Town, when Telfer sat down his eight-man starting pack and delivered one of the great sporting speeches, which still has the capacity to tingle spines 24 years on.
Three lines in particular stick out: “Selection is the easy bit”. “This is your Everest, boys” and “Remember your pledges.” Johnson, the captain, even has a one-liner of his own: “Enjoy the pain.”
The second was the management meeting headed by McGeechan to decide, among other things, who would be the starting scrum-half. Dawson rated Wales’ Rob Howley "as probably the best scrum-half in the world at the time.", not to mention his "mentor" on tour, but it was the Englishman who was handed the shirt.
The pay-off came in the final few minutes of that first Test in Cape Town. The Lions trailed 16-15 with seven minutes remaining after a brutal game, with Guscott – ironically, given what was to come – having just missed a drop goal. But after the Lions won a scrum outside South Africa’s 22, Dawson seized his moment.
First, a sniping break saw him burst through Ruben Kruger’s tackle; then, as Evans charged up on his inside line, his dummied overhead pass utterly wrong-footed South African skipper Gary Teichmann (as well as virtually every other player in his vicinity) and allowed him to touch down in the corner. In that instant, another Lions moment of immortality was born.
“It does come up a hell of a lot – it’s quite humbling,” Dawson said. “Our strategy was to get the ball in and out of the scrum as quickly as possible. On that occasion, Tim Rodber had said: ‘Listen, if I put it on my right foot, just try and get out wide.’
“You’re sort of out in the open, looking for the inside support… and everyone’s gone for [the dummy]. It’s not like that’s the move. I know I’ve done my bit, it’s got to be on for someone inside because I’m going to get smashed – and in that split second they all fall for it. It’s not like I was sprinting trying to do it down in the corner flag. Everybody stood still.”
On that moment, Dawson has an interesting theory. “If Rob Howley makes that break, they don’t fall for that dummy because they know how brilliant he is, and that he’s a threat. Whereas they don’t know anything about me and are not going to believe for a minute that I would have the audacity to do that. It just happened to all merge into that sort of perfect storm for the Springboks.”
A late try from Tait sealed a 25-16 win, the Lions’ first in a non-dead rubber Test in South Africa since 1974.
“A lot of the things we’d planned and which Jim and Geech had worked on came through,” Tait added. “When the team was selected there would have been a lot of doubts from people, with Jenkins at full-back, Gregor at 10, myself on the wing. And that’s just the backs.
“To see the joy on everybody’s faces, the whole squad… it wasn’t a case of us or them – everyone was in it together. To get the first Test is tremendous. It puts a lot of pressure on you if you don’t.”
‘Right person, right time’
If the motivation for the first Test win had come from Telfer, the second in Durban was delivered by McGeechan – albeit in a typically more understated fashion.
Again, the Living with Lions cameras were there to document it: “You’ll meet each other in the street in 30 years’ time and there’ll just be a look," McGeechan told the squad. "And you’ll know just how special some days in your life are. It has been and is a privilege. Go out, enjoy it, remember how you’ve got here and why. Finish it off, and be special for the rest of your lives.”
The match itself is once again unbearably tense, and at 15-15 in the 75th minute, anyone’s to win. Now it is Guscott’s time to shine.
The England centre had been a grumpy presence at half-time, haranguing his team-mates for their lack of attacking invention, and now the time had come for him to take matters into his own hands.
First, Guscott won a crucial turnover – surprising in itself, given, as McGeechan observed, "Jerry was probably in five rucks in his whole career"; then, after the Lions work themselves deep into South African territory, Gregor Townsend crashed up on a carry after a Lions maul close to the Springbok line.
The Scot was the only player to have scored a drop goal for the Lions on the tour, but no matter: after receiving Dawson’s pass, Guscott popped over his kick and the Lions had their lead.
“I wasn’t expecting it all,” McGeechan says of that moment. “But again – right person, right time. By that time I’d had Jerry on three Lions tours. England weren’t picking him but I was always going to have him, because I just enjoyed coaching him. He was a talent, but most of all he was a real competitor. He had the skills to do all sorts of things.”
Tait, having come off seconds beforehand after pinging his hamstring, was icing up on the sidelines. “We just all erupted. There’s not many centres who would have done it.”
The Test, and series, were not quite over. McGeechan and Telfer, sat in the stands surrounded by Springbok supporters, did not even celebrate Guscott’s drop goal. McGeechan describes it now as “the toughest three to four minutes as a coach I have ever had” as he waited for the final whistle.
When the Lions won a 22 drop-out, the players had the foresight to check with the referee, Didier Mene of France, that the match would stop when the ball next went into touch – hence Neil Jenkins sending the kick straight off the field to confirm the victory. Cue more ‘Wonderwall’, more beer and McGeechan having his head shaved by Wood in the changing room.
A legacy that lives on
There was still a third Test to play – for those who were still standing – back at Ellis Park. “It was like A&E the next day in the physio room,” said Tait. “‘You’re ruled out, you’re ruled out’ – we must have been up to double figures. ‘Your tour’s over’. The management said ‘Right, we’ll room you lot together and you can go have a few beers’. Aye, that was a week. I thought they might send us home but it was a chance for the lads who were ruled out to let their hair down. We had some good nights out and real good craics together.”
The Lions were well beaten, Dawson scoring their only try in a much-changed side. But the series has been won, only the Lions’ third ever in South Africa.
For McGeechan, the class of 1997 nearly discovered rugby utopia. “You always as a coach have in your head the perfect game, the one you would really like to see on the field as a coach. Some of the games in 1997 came really close to that. From my perspective, the most pleasing thing as we played rugby which the southern hemisphere didn’t think British an Irish players were capable of playing."
Wainwright, now a farmer on the Hebridean island of Coll, pins the Lions’ success on their squad unity forged thousands of miles away in Weybridge. “There would be very few players from the home nations who wouldn’t view it as the pinnacle of their career. Just to be selected is a level of recognition. It gives you a lot of confidence in the rest of your life.
“There’s some fantastic footage of Jason Leonard – his tour was pretty much finished, but he was getting immense pleasure from the boys doing well. That’s the key. Getting everyone working towards the common goal. Everyone’s human and not everyone’s going to like each other. But if you get it right, it’s a joy to be part of.”
That speech made by McGeechan about meeting each other in the street in 30 years’ time, rings true for Tait. “I’ve been on a lot of tours, but certainly that was my best ever. Everyone gelled. Friends for life, really. There’s some guys I won’t have seen since, but I know if I bump into them, everybody is still really friendly and we get on well together. The friendships, the memories, are probably the highlights of my life.”