British & Irish Lions
60 years on: Lions beat Springboks in historic first Test
Huw Richards
August 6, 2015
Bryn Meredith of the British Lions throws out a protective screen as British Lions' scrum-half Dicky Jeeps gets the ball from a line out
Bryn Meredith of the British Lions throws out a protective screen as British Lions' scrum-half Dicky Jeeps gets the ball from a line out© AP Photo

Not every big match lives up to the build-up. We can all remember those fervently awaited contests, avidly debated across print, airwaves and social media, with packed arenas and touts finding plenty of takers outside, which turned out anticlimactic damp squibs.

But that was not the case with the match played at Ellis Park, Johannesburg 60 years ago this week, August 6 1955, between the Springboks and the touring British and Irish Lions. It attracted a crowd recorded as 95,000 - then, and for decades later, a record for rugby union - which some reckoned was larger.

That huge number included a man who 40 years later would be, on the same ground, a principle figure in perhaps the game's most iconic image - Nelson Mandela. In 1955 he was nowhere near any presidential box, but one of the thousands packed into the stadium's least comfortable accommodation - the segregated non-European section, which gave fervent support to the touring team. The sheer size of the crowd reflected both the scarcity of Springbok matches - it was two years since they had last played, against the touring Australians - and the excitement around the Lions. Danie Craven, the South African game's dominant figure, would rate them among the best teams ever to visit the Republic, adding 'Their back play is a treat to watch'.

Unsurprisingly the Boks were much changed, with nine new caps including future league legend Tom van Vollenhoven at centre and Johannes Claassen, destined to be Boks captain and coach, before becoming a bishop. Jackie van der Schyff was recalled at full-back for the part played by his kicking in Western Transvaal's 9-6 defeat of the tourists in their opening match, while the team was led by Western Province flanker Stephen Fry.

But remaking themselves every couple of years was built into Bok traditions at this time, and it had not notably inconvenienced them. One of the reasons they were undefeated in any series since 1896 was that they had not lost an opening test at home in that time. Their post-war record showed 12 wins and one defeat, including a 4-0 sweep of the All Blacks in 1949 and wins over every one of the Five Nations in their 1951-2 tour.

British Lions' Billy Williams is harassed by Salty Du Rand of the Springboks as he pases the ball to his scrum-half Dickie Jeeps
British Lions' Billy Williams is harassed by Salty Du Rand of the Springboks as he pases the ball to his scrum-half Dickie Jeeps© AP Photo

Lions selection had suffered from the endemic horse trading of the age, leading to the selection of half a dozen players whom Clem Thomas, destined to be the historian of the Lions, recalled as 'simply not up to the standards required'. Clem refused to name names, but did argue that Robin Thompson - one of many Irishmen to lead the Lions was 'frankly, not sufficiently experienced', while his deputy Angus Cameron, Scotland's full-back, had an injured knee.

Nor was the 1950s an era noted for brilliant rugby - Five Nations scoring would reach an all-time low by the end of the decade. But the Lions stood out against this monochrome background - playing some brilliant rugby (though not winning many tests) in New Zealand in 1950 and 1959, and reaching a peak in South Africa. Cliff Morgan, with characteristic generosity, attributed the quality of the 1955 Lions to England centre Jeff Butterfield, whose Loughborough training meant that he became in effect player-coach and, in his playing role, a world-class midfield creator. "We played beautiful rugby because of him", was Cliff's memory. This, though, was a Lions team which drew on the strength of all four countries. Wales supplied the entire front row, lock Rhys Williams - a rare British forward who drew rave reviews from both South Africans and New Zealanders - number eight Russell Robins and the effervescent Morgan, whom journalist JBG Thomas called "the radioactive particle around which the whole social side of the tour revolved". England provided Butterfield and his centre partner Phil Davies, a crash-baller with the broadest shoulders in the tour party, tough Liverpool flanker Reg Higgins and a scrum-half, Dickie Jeeps, who was playing his first international after beating out England incumbent Johnny Williams - in part because his pass suited Morgan, who liked the ball in front of him, better than Williams's bullet-like service.

Ireland supplied Thompson and the two wings - Ulsterman Cecil Pedlow and teenage tycoon-to-be Tony O'Reilly. Scotland's contribution was Cameron and cerebral flanker Jim Greenwood. All four countries would also contribute to the scoring in an epic contest.

The Lions were piped on to the pitch by lock Ernie Michie, wearing full highland dress, and opened the scoring when Pedlow rounded off a move somehow kept going when Butterfield took a pass behind his own back. But their advantage, three points in those days, was short-lived. Van der Schyff landed two penalties and then added a conversion after five foot three scrum-half Tommy Gentles combined with his captain to send debutant wing Theunis Briers over.

The Boks' 11-3 lead became 11-8 by half-time as Butterfield deceived the Boks defence with a sharp change of direction and Cameron converted, but Lions hopes look to have ended immediately after the break when Higgins went down injured. Continuing was not an option - he would be out for a year - and this was more than a decade before replacements were allowed.

Bryn Meredith and Rees Williams of the British Lions rush T.A. Gentles, the Springbok scrum-half, in the first rugby test at Ellis Park, Johannesburg
Bryn Meredith and Rees Williams of the British Lions rush T.A. Gentles, the Springbok scrum-half, in the first rugby test at Ellis Park, Johannesburg© AP Photo

The Lions performance with 14 men was among the most heroic in their history. Morgan told in his memoirs how Higgins insisted that the stretcher-bearers let him wait behind the posts, saying "I want to see the Lions score a try".

His depleted team-mates duly obliged - three times. Hooker Bryn Meredith and the seven-man Lions pack won a strike against the head to create an opening for Morgan, of whom veteran Springbok chronicler AC Parker reckoned 'I have seen no outside-half who equalled the dizzy heights he scaled on this tour'. He flatfooted marker Basie van Wyk and swerved past van der Schyff to the line. This was to be a chastening few minutes for the veteran full-back as he was twice bamboozled by Lions kicks and first Greenwood then O'Reilly pounced to score. Cameron converted the lot and the Lions led 23-11.

Inevitably the 14 men tired. Cameron in his turn misjudged a kick and Sias Swart, a centre from South-West Africa, pounced to score. But the Lions held on until the last few minutes when prop Chris Koch, one of the Bok veterans, blasted 20 yards to the line and van der Schyff converted.

Three minutes of injury time were played, recalled Thomas - a spectator because he was still recovering from appendicitis - "with the massive crowd screaming deliriously". In the final seconds Fry found Briers, who swerved through two tackles to the line. Briers would later confess that he could have got closer to the posts, but did not think about it. But AC Parker reckoned that the kick, about 12 yards in from touch, was one van der Schyff would land eight times out of ten and Cliff Morgan remembers thinking "Oh god, this is it. We've lost the game". The scoreboard operator stood with '24' in his hand waiting to amend a board which read BRITISH ISLES 23 SUID AFRIKA 22.

He had no need. Van der Schyff missed, and the picture of him with head hanging as he turned away is among the classic images of sporting dejection. He did not play for South Africa again, and later made a living as a crocodile hunter in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe).

The Springboks would fight back to level the series 2-2, but not before selector Basil Kenyon had turned to his fellow panellists when the Lions led 5-3 during the final test and said "You know, we must admit these chaps are better than we are". The Boks won that one 22-8 to tie the series.

Not to win the series after taking the first test is always a disappointment, but it still made them the first Lions squad since the 19th century - and the last until the achievements of the 1970s - to match either of the southern giants. And that first test victory remains a shining moment in the game's history as, in the words of Clem Thomas, 'the match of that generation'.

© Huw Richards

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