Lions re-find their roar
June 21, 1997
South Africa's Andre Snyman runs into Scott Gibbs
© PA Photos
Rugby union's transition from amateur to professional caused many to predict the extinction of the British & Irish Lions. The concept of uniting four rugby nations for long tours would become anachronistic, according to the sages who also predicted a thrashing at the hands of World Cup-holders South Africa.
This victory, and the series win that followed, silenced the doubters and did much to preserve the Lions brand that is now stronger than ever. It was made by an outrageous dummy and try from Matt Dawson, sealed by another from Alan Tait, but built on foundations of outstanding defence and the reliable boot of Neil Jenkins.
The Lions had won seven of the eight warm up games, mostly against weakened provincial sides, the Springbok management having elected to hide their Test players until the main event. This approach handed the momentum to the Lions, who arrived at Newlands confident, if untested against the best.
Dawson was lucky to be on the tour, having been overlooked by England in 1997's Five Nations. He travelled as third choice scrum half, behind Rob Howley and Austin Healey, but showed better form than Healey early in the tour. When a dislocated shoulder ended Howley's tour a week before the Test, Dawson found himself first choice to partner Gregor Townsend at half-back.
The game started ominously. The first scrum saw the immensely powerful Springbok pack send the Lions rapidly backwards. Edrich Lubbe put the hosts ahead with the resulting penalty. Jenkins soon levelled the scores, but the Lions were struggling to resist their bigger opponents. When Os du Randt barrelled his way over for a try from a Mark Andrews lineout win after 22 minutes, the expected crushing of the Lions looked a formality.
South Africa began to make mistakes in the second quarter. Indiscipline allowed Jenkins two more penalties, the half backs were not controlling the game well and the Lions led 9-8 at the interval. The Lions defence became solid, Townsend, Guscott and Scott Gibbs, in particular, earning their stripes along with the back row. Jeremy Davidson ruled the lineout, winning so much ball that Martin Johnson was scarcely used.
Jenkins stretched the lead to four points immediately after the break when du Randt joined a maul from the wrong side. Minutes later, however, a sustained Springbok attack ended with replacement wing Russell Bennett scoring wide on the left after Gibbs missed a tackle on Gary Teichmann.
Henry Honiball missed the conversion, but by the hour mark he and Jenkins had added a penalty each, South Africa leading 16-15.
By now the Lions scrum was holding firm, anchored by props Tom Smith and Paul Wallace. Dawson picked the ball up from a scrum that had wheeled left, leaving space on the blind side for him to break and use Ieuan Evans on the wing. But as he broke away, Evans moved inside him, so eliminating the option of passing to the right. Dawson paused, made to give an overhead pass back inside, held on and cantered the remaining 22 metres to the corner. His dummy had stopped four Springboks in their tracks, among them Teichmann and Joost van der Westhuizen. It was a move of youthful impudence, and a career defining moment.
Dawson had beaten the world's best scrum half at his own game. Behind a pack that gained strength as the game went on, his judgement and execution were spot on. Though Jenkins' conversion attempt hit the post, the stunned Springboks lost heart in the remaining seven minutes.
Matt Dawson touches down against the Springboks © PA Photos
Alan Tait crowned the match with the Lions' second try in the last minute, sending South Africa homeward to think again.
South Africa's press didn't hold back. Under headlines like, "Boks blow it", they accused their team of "poverty of imagination and initiative" and criticised the lack of authority from such players as Van der Westhuizen and Mark Andrews. Dawson's assessment of his dummy added salt to Springbok wounds, "I haven't got away with that one for a long time, not since school."
Before the match, Lions assistant coach, Jim Telfer, had spoken of the tunnel into which his men were entering without knowing whether they would emerge successfully. This win overcame any fear of the unknown and put the Lions in a position to see the light at the tunnel's end, into which they would charge with a second, series clinching win in Durban a week later.
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