'We were lucky to get nil'
November 18, 2011
Stephen Fry was the only Boks forward not to score against Scotland on that memorable day © PA Photos
It is 60 years next week since one of the most spectacular results in the history of international rugby union. The match between Scotland and South Africa at Murrayfield on November 24, 1951 has gone into the game's folklore, forever associated - possibly apocryphally - with the stunned Scottish fan whose comment on the final scoreline was 'we were lucky to get nil'.
That South Africa should beat Scotland was no particular shock. The Springboks had not lost to any of the Home Nations since defeat in their first ever test in the British Isles, a 6-0 defeat by the Scots 45 years before.
Their enduring power had been demonstrated only two years earlier when the All Blacks were swept 4-0 in a series marked by hometown refereeing but also, fair-minded New Zealanders recognised, some exceptional play by the Boks. They had arrived in Britain in 1951 with assistant manager Danie Craven promising they would play in a more open style than the grinders who had seen off the All Blacks or their forerunners on the Bennie Osler-defined visit of 1931-2.
It was the first international of the tour - South Africa's first in Britain since the 1931-2 tour - and the Boks were still smarting from defeat by London Counties two weeks earlier at Twickenham. Nor were Scotland a joke team. They had nine survivors from the team who earlier in the year had slaughtered a Lions-studded Wales team 19-0 in one of the greatest shocks in Five/Six Nations history. While they had lost two later games in that year's championship, both were by narrow margins.
And there was no evidence of the wrath to come in the opening stages, as Scotland gave as good as they got and came close to scoring on at least one occasion. Then, after 17 minutes, the Boks struck. Back rower Stephen Fry - later to captain the Boks - won a line-out and broke, exchanged passes with wing Buks Marais and sent lock Saltie du Rand over. The effect was of a dam breaking.
Legendary commentator Bill McLaren, then just breaking into journalism, vividly recalled the quality of the South Africans, who ran amok for the remaining hour :"It was like sevens played by 15 men. I had never seen anything quite like them. I had never seen a prop forward run as fast as Chris Koch, had never seen as huge a man as Okey Geffin kick goals, had never seen very big forwards, such as Ernest Dinckelmann, Jan Pickard, Gert Dannhauser, Basie van Wyk, Saltie du Rand and Hennie Muller, running and handling with such dexterity. When they were launched it was like watching a cattle stampede ; with remarkable skill and ball transference they brought a new dimension to forward play."
Dr Craven reckoned it was the best performance he could remember by a Springbok side. And while the experienced Welsh observer J.B.G Thomas demurred, suggesting that Scottish weakness played its part in the deluge, the Scottish veteran Jock Wemyss said :"Never have I seen such a superb pack of forwards".
Douglas Elliott, the outstanding Scottish forward of the period, battled to the end in a pack outweighed by 10lb per man that at least competed in the set pieces. But they were simply overwhelmed. Every Bok forward except Fry scored. Du Rand was followed by prop Chris Koch (twice), hooker Willem Delport, his fellow-lock van Wyk, number eight and captain Muller and flanker Dinkelmann, while Geffin - a prop alleged to have learnt his goal-kicking skills as a prisoner of war in Poland - kicked seven conversions. (Pickard and Dannhauser, whom McLaren had seen in an earlier match against a Glasgow-Edinburgh select, did not play). Nor was that the end of the scoring as van Schoor and his fellow centre Tjol Lategan also crossed and outside-half Hannes Brewis dropped a goal.
The final count, with a try still counting for only three points was 44-0, a record margin for a full cap international which remained until Ireland buried Romania 60-0 in 1986. Under modern scoring values it would have been 62-0, but that really only tells half the story.
In relative terms, it remains the greatest hammering ever inflicted by one major rugby nation on another. This was a low-scoring era. The average team score in Five Nations matches in the first 10 seasons after the war - a period for which this match represented a mid-point - was 7.48 points. South Africa managed almost six times that without reply.
Over the past ten seasons the average team score in the Five/Six Nations has been 21.6 points. To match South Africa's achievement, and Scotland's misery, in relative terms a modern team would have to win 129-0. Famous massacres like the Boks' 96-13 mullering of Wales in 1998 or the 59-6 All Black victory over Ireland six years earlier look like close-run things in comparison.
For the Boks it proved to be a triumphant tour in which they won all five internationals, concluding with a 25-3 win over France that might have raised a few eyebrows but for their Murrayfield feats. Not until they went down to the All Blacks in the ultra-charged series of 1956 were they seriously challenged.
But for Scotland it launched a true dark age. Only five of the team hammered by South Africa survived to face France in the opening match of the 1952 Five Nations a few weeks later. Norman Mair, a fine hooker turned even been rugby journalist, reckoned that the South Africa defeat turned decline into collapse :"We panicked right through. We went for a heavy pack one minute, then a light,mobile pack the next. We just dithered'.
The run of defeats went on for nearly four years, a total of 17matches in all, before Wales were beaten at Murrayfield in 1955. Well might McLaren, whose early broadcasting career coincided with the second half of this calvary, call it 'Scotland's Long Dark Tunnel'. Scottish rugby has had plenty go wrong over the past decade, its inevitably limited resources not always deployed to the greatest decade. But it has at least been spared anything quite like the Springbok deluge at Murrayfield in 1951 and the ghastly years that followed.
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