Rugby is certainly a much-changed game from those days of 99-calls, wings throwing into the lineout and teams like the Western Transvaal Mielieboere and the South-Western Districts Volstruisboere being part of the mainstream game and playing against touring sides.
But there are still lessons and cautionary tales that can be drawn from that tour, which has been given a thorough going-over and a fresh perspective in Luke Alfred’s recently-published book, When the Lions Came to Town (Zebra Press).
The 1974 Lions tour to South Africa was meant to showcase the resilience of Springbok rugby in surviving the first shadows of isolation, to show that they were still a global power whatever the world thought of their shameful politics. It still makes me sick to the stomach to think that a leading Sunday newspaper saw fit to use a headline saying the Springboks had received a “K…erpak” in the 28-9 second Test hammering at Loftus Versfeld. Alfred reveals how the mastermind of that offensive headline is actually lauded as a progressive journalist and “anything but racist”.
But instead, in going through their 22-match tour unbeaten, winning the Tests 3-0 and drawing the fourth, the Lions showed that South African rugby was stuck in the past, gathering dust like a faded old trophy on the mantelpiece.
In many ways, the Springboks were meant to be the shop window for the National Party’s doomed social engineering project called Apartheid, but the insecurities of the nation were brutally exposed by a Lions team that not only physically dominated, but also out-thought, the South Africans and had more attacking flair, scoring 10 tries to one in the Tests.
It was, of course, a golden era for British and Irish rugby with the likes of Willie-John McBride, Ian ‘Mighty Mouse’ McLauchlan, Gareth Edwards, Phil Bennett, JJ and JPR Williams amongst the best players in the world.
It’s a delicious tour for a sportswriter to delve into, resulting as it did in seismic after-effects for South African rugby, and Alfred uncovers some extraordinary tales like centre Peter Cronje playing in the crucial third Test with a shoulder that was so badly injured that he could not lift his arm above the perpendicular; the two Lions players who commandeered a limousine outside a function and ended up taking Rhodesian prime minister Ian Smith on a high-speed drive through the streets of Salisbury; and some of the ludicrous selections that the panicked Springbok management made through the series. At one stage the Test scrumhalf was chosen by all the candidates walking through a ballroom and playing out a set move … perhaps that’s why eighthman Gerrie Sonnekus was then moved to half-back!
While some accuse current Springbok coach Heyneke Meyer of metaphorically being the recipient of apples from his class favourites, at least the national team will go into next year’s World Cup with a pretty clear picture of what the best starting XV will be.
The loss of captain Jean de Villiers with an awful knee injury is obviously a major blow, but Meyer has ensured there is plenty of leadership in the team, one of the first pillars of success.
First and foremost, however, now is not the time for the sort of panic that saw the 1974 Springboks humiliated. It is, however, the time for astute planning because underestimating the Northern Hemisphere challenge is a recipe for disaster.