Last week marked one year to the start of the British and Irish Lions’ next tour to SA, and 40 years since the curtain dropped on their eventful Test series here in 1980.
When the 1980 Lions arrived here, the Springboks, due to isolation imposed on the apartheid government, had not met opposition of lofty international repute for four years. Sure, there was a one-off match against a World XV in 1977 and two clashes against a South American line-up earlier in 1980, but those weren’t the match-ups by which Springbok rugby measured itself.
The tour of Bill Beaumont’s team wasn’t just highly anticipated because of the Springboks’ relative absence from the international arena. On the Lions’ last visit in 1974, the Springboks, in every sense, were well and truly beaten.
“It was a drubbing. There is no other way for me to describe it. That was the best touring side to come to SA,” said Morne du Plessis who had the responsibility of restoring Springbok pride as captain in the 1980 series.
“We wanted to prove we could still play rugby. We didn’t want to be caught off guard again,” said Du Plessis, referring to the fact that unlike the previous Lions’ visit when the Springboks used 33 players, they only made two changes in the four Tests in 1980.
Du Plessis explained why the Boks prevailed 3-1 in the Test series.
“There was understanding and cohesion. We were a more settled team. We were a happy team.
“Playing with Theuns [Stofberg ] and Rob [Louw] in 1980 was something else. We also had Naas [Botha] and Divan [Serfontein] in their prime,” said Du Plessis.
“I don’t think we played on emotion,” said Botha. “We were inexperienced [in the Test arena] and, in fact, I don’t think we had anything to lose. Also, Morne’s captaincy really shone through in that series,” said the flyhalf.
Irish scrumhalf John Robbie, who was called up as a replacement while on tour in the newly formed Zimbabwe, believes the quality of the Springboks’ attack helped decide the series.
“You had Rob Louw’s speed and impact all around the park, while Gysie [Pienaar] was so dynamic in their attacks from fullback,” said Robbie.
While the 1974 Test series was punctuated by sporadic pitch battles in which the hosts were largely beaten to the punch, the Bok Class of 1980 showed restraint and composure. Not even the sight of their captain receiving a haymaker from Lions’ No 8 Derek Quinnell in the opening minute of the first Test in Cape Town got the Springboks’ blood boiling.
“We’ve seen each other through the years and we chuckle about it,” Du Plessis said about Quinnell.
“I was more worried as captain not seeing out of one eye. Rob Louw still jokes about it, saying he thought a mouse had crept up under my eye,” Du Plessis said about his substantial shiner.
Out of one eye, Du Plessis witnessed, as he put it, “some incredible tries” as the Boks set the tone for the remainder of the series with a 26-22 win against a Lions team that relied heavily on their forwards and the boot of flyhalf Tony Ward.
The hosts took an unassailable series lead in Bloemfontein, winning 26-19 before taking the series away from the tourists with a 12-10 win in a wet Port Elizabeth.
The Boks then marched to Pretoria with a spring in their step, but Doc Danie Craven burst their bubble in the change room minutes before kickoff.
“He told us we were going to lose that Test. We were all taken aback but he was proved right,” Botha recalled of the 17-13 defeat.
Though the series was fierce and uncompromising, touring teams could never escape the pong of visiting apartheid SA. As is often the case, those tours divided opinion.
While Botha recalled “politically, it was a tough time”, the older, more statesmanlike Du Plessis dialled into the frequency of that era.
“It was the time we lived in. Looking back at it now you can’t believe we lived in those times. This country was in a deep, dark place. We, rugby guys, unfortunately just look out for your own territory, your own sport. You get a chance to play and you do.”
As a 24-year-old he didn’t think so at the time, but Robbie, who played in the last Test, believes it was wrong to come to a SA in the grip of a repressive regime.
“It is something I have to live with,” said Robbie. “I have this great contradiction that it was a great rugby experience and highlight of my rugby career. Later in life I would be interviewing people who were in jail while I was touring here. I’ve learnt to forgive myself and move on.”