Springboks fail to weather Irish storm
Huw Richards
November 27, 2009
South Africa's Avril Malan poses aboard the liner 'Pretoria Castle' en route to Southampton in England, October 14, 1960
South Africa's Avril Malan, pictured here in 1960, also led the Springboks on their 1965 tour © Getty Images

History, we're often told, is written by the winners. Certainly in sport, historical memory tends to concentrate on any nation's victories. That perhaps helps account for the All Blacks looming larger in British rugby legend than the Springboks. Matches like Wales's epic defeat of the first All Blacks in 1905 and 'Obolensky's match', England's 13-0 demolition of the 1936 team, have passed into legend.

The Boks, by contrast, allowed few such happy memories. They lost their first match in Britain, against Scotland in 1906, then drew with England at the end of that tour. After that, for the hosts - nothing. The teams of 1912, 1931, 1951 and 1960 won all their matches against the Home Nations - a feat that the All Blacks would not equal until 1978 or the Australians until 1984.

So when they pitched up at Lansdowne Road on April 10, 1965, they were defending an unbeaten record extending over 16 Tests and 59 years. This, though, was different to previous Springbok tours. It was their first ever short visit to Britain and Ireland, five matches in Ireland and Scotland, in reciprocity for their visits earlier in the decade as individual nations began to experiment with the short tour which is now the dominant model. It was unusually timed - coming right at the beginning of the South African season and catching opponents led by cerebral prop Ray McLoughlin who had just concluded a particularly good Five Nations campaign, deprived of a Triple Crown only by a 14-8 defeat in a tumultuous match at Cardiff which gave Wales both crown and championship.

The Boks had lost their last match of 1964, beaten 8-6 at Springs by Michel Crauste's French tourists. And there had been a huge row over the captaincy for the tour, in one of those incidents underlining that, for all the protestations of the 'Keep Politics out of Sport' lobby, nowhere was rugby ever more politicised than in apartheid-era South Africa.

The selectors had chosen Doug Hopwood, a superb back row forward who had led Currie Cup winners Western Province brilliantly, as captain. Their choice was vetoed by the South African Rugby Board. Told to think again the selectors opted for Avril Malan.

It was a political decision. As Edward Griffiths, who knows plenty about South African rugby politics from his time as chief executive of the post-apartheid Board, wrote in 2001, 'Almost 40 years on, players of the day recall the saga and their eyes fire with anger at what still seems to have been a blatant example of discrimination'.

Malan was not an implausible choice as captain - he had led the 1960 Springboks. But on this occasion it was more important that he was a member of the Afrikaaner broederbond. Hopwood was of British descent. While Danie Craven, never a broeder, retained the presidency the Board was dominated by members of the Afrikaaner power network society, notably Kobus Louw, vice-chair of the Board and later a cabinet minister, who also managed the tour.

The result, as Chris Greyvenstein wrote was 'an unhappy combination without aim or spirit'. Malan told Griffiths, "Our players were not fit, they had no time to develop as a unit. It became clear before long that this tour would be a fiasco."

They drew with Combined Provinces in Belfast, then in the midweek match before the Test went down 12-10 at Thomond Park to a Combined Universities team weakened by the absence of five players chosen to play for Ireland on the following Saturday. Malan, congratulating the students at the after-match dinner, said that 'the Springboks had very little experience of losing'.

"Fifty-nine years of invincibility ended with the final whistle, and it was to be 29 years before the Boks won again on British and Irish soil."

They were to get plenty more in 1965, a year Greyvenstein described as their 'annus miserabilis'. In Dublin they were greeted by anti-apartheid demonstrators, who were bombarded with eggs by the Irish team when the march went past their hotel.

At Lansdowne Road they had to reckon with the Irish weather - blustery wind and intermittent showers. They had the advantage of it in the first-half, but it was only 3-3 at the break with wing Pat McGrath's try from scrum-half Roger Young's finely-weighted chip cancelling out a penalty from outside-half Dave Stewart.

South African also scored against the wind after half-time, with centre Mans crossing. But fullback Tom Kiernan equalised with a penalty. Ireland seemed to have taken the lead when outside-half Mike Gibson, probably the greatest player in a XV containing Irish immortals like McLoughlin, Kiernan, Willie John McBride and Noel Murphy, went over but the try was disallowed.

Then a penalty was awarded to Ireland. Kiernan kicked with a low trajectory, and as Edmund van Esbeck recalled, "There was a breathless moment of suspense while the ball was in the air, and an explosion of thunderous acclaim when it reached its objective."

Fifty-nine years of invincibility ended with the final whistle, and it was to be 29 years before the Boks won again on British and Irish soil. They lost 8-5 to Scotland a week later, the embattled 1969-70 team lost to Scotland and England and drew with Wales and Ireland, and then came the years of isolation. The 'annus miserabilis' continued with their first ever series loss, 2-0, in Australia and a 3-1 defeat by the All Blacks.

They have had a considerable edge over Ireland in the post-apartheid era, winning six matches to two since contact was resumed in 1998. Those two, though, are the most recent meetings, in Dublin in 2006 and 2008.

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