Lions victorious in Battle of Boet Erasmus
July 13, 1974
Gordon Brown opened the Lions' try count
© Getty Images
The British Lions sealed an historic victory in Port Elizabeth to claim their first series win against South Africa in 78 years.
Two tries from winger JJ Williams and another from second-row Gordon Brown saw the Lions power past the all-white Springboks in the third Test to claim a famous win on a tour to apartheid-era South Africa that was steeped in controversy.
But the 'Battle of Boet Erasmus' has come to be remembered less for the result and more for being one of the most violent matches in rugby history. Determined not to be cowed by the Springboks' physical approach, the Lions had adopted a collective approach to self-defence and the clash was punctuated by repeated outbreaks of full-blown warfare.
After suffering defeat in the first two encounters of the four-Test series, South Africa went into the third Test under huge pressure. Determined to right a sinking ship, the hosts dropped all but five players for the Port Elizabeth clash and arrived fully prepared for a fight.
Taking the field with what the Observer's Kevin Mitchell described as a "demented look", the Springboks threw everything they had at the Lions in the opening half hour. Speaking to Mitchell in 2009, Lion centre Dick Milliken said he had "never experienced such intensity on a rugby pitch" as in that first 30 minutes.
But the tourists withstood the onslaught and, with the half-time break looming, lock Gordon Brown snatched the ball short from a line-out. The giant Scot powered over for the Lions' first try, nipping the Springbok revival in the bud.
Willie John McBride skippered the Lions to their triumph © Getty Images
Emerging for the second-half 7-3 to the good, the Lions played some of their best rugby of the tour to take the match out of their hosts' reach. A brace of tries from Williams did most of the damage, but Phil Bennett chipped in with two dropped goals and Andy Irvine landed a memorable 63-yard penalty to rub salt into South African wounds.
Williams' second try was something special. Coming in the final 15 minutes, it was described at the time as the "try of the tour" by the Daily Express' Chris Lander: "Dick Milliken worked the ball to Llanelli wing John J Williams, who threatened to go outside his opposite number," Lander wrote. "But [he] heard JPR Williams screaming for the ball on the inside.
"The Welsh full-back was checked short of the line, but by now John J. was accelerating on a diagonal run behind JPR for a try that broke the Springbok hearts."
While the try might have been a thing of beauty, the repeated punch-ups gave the match an uglier look overall. The Lions were determined to neutralise the Springboks' dirty tricks and adopted the infamous '99' call - the cry of which incited each Lion to attack an opponent in a show of collective force.
One incident in Port Elizabeth saw JPR Williams charge 60 yards to punch Springbok second-row Moaner van Heerden, while another scuffle saw Johan de Bruyn lose his glass eye after being clobbered by Brown. The eye was eventually found, but the Lions had shown they would not be bullied.
After the match, Springbok captain Hannes Marais paid tribute to the ferocity of the tourists. "Your Lions have devoured us from start to finish," he told Lander. "They are the greatest side I've played against. They won in New Zealand and now they have become the first team to take a series here in 78 years.
"Nobody can deny them the title of world champions. It's difficult to see how we can stop them making it a grand slam in the last Test."
The Springboks did in fact go on to deny the Lions a series grand slam, earning a 13-13 draw in the final Test in Johannesburg. But while the Lions were not without their critics for opting to tour in a country in the grips of apartheid, victory in Port Elizabeth ensured the 1974 tourists could leave a troubled South Africa as champions.
The Lions earned their first series win against South Africa in 78 years © Getty Images
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