Springboks win best of five
August 28, 2009
Bennie Osler was a focal point of the Springboks' 1933 series with Australia © Getty Images
While the last few weeks have shown us the virtues of the five-Test series in cricket, the idea never really caught on in rugby. It was tried only once, when this weekend's adversaries - the Wallabies and Springboks - met in 1933 in South Africa.
The early 1930s saw Australia recovering from its post-war slump, when the game had been confined to New South Wales, and the touring team was one of the most representative in its history, including three players from Victoria as well as a respectable contingent of Queenslanders.
One of the Victorians, Dave Cowper, became captain when both tour leader Alec Ross, struck down by appendicitis, and his deputy Syd Malcolm were ruled out of the first three tests. His son Bob was to play cricket for Australia in the 1960s, once scoring 307 in a Test against England.
He led a decent team with a powerful, combative pack featuring the aggressive duo of prop 'Wild Bill Cerrutti', first of a succession of Italian-Australian players that also includes David Campese and John Eales, and back rower Aub Hodgson. Alongside Cerutti at hooker was Ted Bonis, who played for Australia through the decade.
With Ron Biilman, a Dutch descended outside-half, pulling the strings, the Wallabies played a lively, open style popular with spectators, and in strong contrast to that of their opponents. For the Boks this was still the era of Bennie Osler, a hugely effective kicking outside-half who had led them to a Grand Slam on the tour of Britain a year earlier, winning matches and respect, but hardly affection. British critic O.L.Owen wrote: "No one could fail to admire his poise and technique - the tactics were another question".
Scrum-half for four of the five tests - moving to centre in the other - was Danie Craven, destined to be the dominant figure in South African rugby over the next 60 years, while Gerry Brand, perhaps the longest kicker in a long tradition of Bok super-boots, had inherited the kicking duties from Osler.
In the pack the incomparable Boy Louw, an Afrikaaner prop famed for his creative mangling of the English language, was joined on the other side of the front-row by his younger brother Fanie. The team was led by lock Phil Nel, reportedly worried for his place and highly surprised when the word 'captain' appeared next to his name on the team-sheet.
The best known match in the series is the second, when Osler was recalled as captain after an injury to Nel. Angered by press criticism after the Boks had ground their way to a 17-3 win the first match at Cape Town, he decided to play the way the critics were demanding.
One can only guess who was more shocked, the Kingsmead crowd or a pack of forwards who had grown used to watching approvingly as Osler blasted the ball downfield for yet another line-out and instead had to do all the running around involved in a more open style of play.
The result was South Africa's heaviest defeat ever, a record that would stand until 1965, as they went down 21-6. Cerutti scored one of Australia's four tries and Biilman kicked three conversions and a penalty while the single Bok score came from centre Frank Waring, who 35 years later would enter British consciousness as South Africa's Minister of Sport during the D'Oliveira affair, and as committed an apartheid hardliner as his former Nazi-sympathiser boss, Prime Minister John Vorster.
Nel, so convincing in a role he never expected that he was also to lead the Boks to Australia and New Zealand in 1937, was back for the remaining Tests. With Osler's point proved, so was the old kick and grind style. Nineteen year old wing Freddie Turner and Fanie Louw scored the tries in a 12-3 win at Johannesburg then Boy, not to be outdone by his younger brother, crossed in the 11-0 victory at Port Elizabeth that clinched the series 3-1.
The fifth Test, the only one played by Aussie skipper Ross, went into history as one of the poorest ever Bok performances and an object lesson in the risk of the dead match - hard luck on Bloemfontein when staging its first ever Test, and last until 1960. The Aussies won 15-4, to end with a respectable losing margin of 3-2.
A loss of interest by players and public, even though this was the only Test rugby played in South Africa between the visits of the 1928 All Blacks and 1938 Lions, had a clear message - you can have too much of a good thing. It is a lesson the Tri-Nations might like to consider as they continue with their path of more matches against the same teams rather than looking for other ways to enliven the tournament.