Sunday 17 December 2017

Dress rehearsal no guarantee for success with Lions past

Sean Diffley

This opening affair this afternoon on the Highveld at Rustenburg, due west from Johannesburg and Pretoria, will be the first game of the 13th tour of teams from these islands to South Africa.

Usually, the tourists win against the weakest team they will encounter. But not always.

Two of the most famous Lions sides began with a shudder. The 1955 side lost to Western Transvaal by 9-6, and an even more famous Lions side, the all-conquering 1971 tourists to New Zealand, got matters under way with a beating by Queensland as the Lions paid a visit to Australia en route to the Land of the Long White Cloud. They lost 15-11 to Queensland but then went on to win the series, including 23 matches, in New Zealand.

The intriguing aspect of those unsuccessful debutants in '55 in South Africa and '71 in New Zealand is that they were both gifted with a positive avalanche of famous players.

The '55 squad included Cliff Morgan, Tony O'Reilly, Jeff Butterfield, Arthur Smith, Cecil Pedlow, Phil Davies and Clem Thomas and were hailed by the South Africans as playing the most direct running rugby, unsurpassed until those great Lions sides of '71 and '74. But they couldn't beat Western Transvaal.

The '71 side that had their defences pierced by Queensland had such notables as Gareth Edwards, Barry John, Mike Gibson, John Dawes, Dave Duckham, Willie John McBride, Ray McLoughlin, Sean Lynch and Fergus Slattery, but the Aussies gave them an unsympathetic send-off across the Tasman Sea.

It was a classic instance of the old Broadway myth that a poor rehearsal often heralds a successful performance.

The first visit by a touring squad from these islands was in 1891 which, incidentally, was eight years before the Boer War.

That party was composed of nine England and Scottish internationals and a host from Cambridge University.

They played 20 matches, won them all, scored 226 points and had only one point scored against them. In those strange days, a try was counted as a mere one point.

Ireland were first represented on the 1896 team and included Lawrence Bulger, Louis Magee -- the Jack Kyle of his day -- and Coo Clinch, the father of Jammie. Then came the 1896 team which included Tom Crean and Robert Johnston, both of Wanderers, who a couple of years later were both awarded Victoria Crosses.

The 1903 squad to South Africa seemed a bit of a mixum-gatherum and had a full-back in its list of 21 players for the 21 matches named E Martelli of Dublin University.

Strangely, the name Martelli does not appear on the role of Trinity players and he remains a bit of a mystery. Was he a well-known player who, for his personal reasons, did not wish to be recognised?

In those days the tourists were known as the British Isles Rugby Union Team and it was not until 1924 that the touring side became known as the Lions and even more recently as the British and Irish Lions.

In the early days the visitors were accepted as teachers of the game, but the physically large Afrikaneers took to the game enthusiastically and learned fast. The only real hiccup occurred in '74 when that Irish combination of astute coach Syd Millar and captain McBride rode roughshod over all opposition.

They won every match except the last, when the local referee decided he did not see Slattery score the winning try for what should have been the 23rd victory from 23 games.

It will be far from easy this time for the Lions.

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