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Last Updated: Wednesday, 18 May, 2005, 14:00 GMT 15:00 UK
History of the Lions: South Africa 1997
By Sean Davies
BBC Sport

Many wondered what future there was for the Lions in the professional era and the answers were unclear ahead of the 1997 tour.

Anticipation was further heightened by the fact that this was the first visit to South Africa since 1980, now the spectre of apartheid was at last lifted.

South Africa were strong favourites on the evidence of an awesome Tri Nations and Super 12 series, but the Lions management had put in rigorous preparations.

Ian McGeechan was coach for an unprecedented third time and he chose as his captain the tough and uncompromising England lock Martin Johnson.

Alongside them they had an expanded network of coaches and specialists, and a record tour party of 35. With injuries, this would be raised to 40.

In the initial squad there were 18 Englishmen, eight Welsh, five Scots and four Irish.

Another new element was the returning rugby league players, six of them in all - Allan Bateman, Scott Gibbs, John Bentley, Alan Tait, Dai Young and Scott Quinnell.

Gibbs was arguably the player of the tour for his confrontational approach, physical presence and devastating tackling.

He was famously described by Jeremy Guscott as "the fastest prop I've ever seen".

McGeechan was keen to avoid the split between the Test and midweek teams that had hindered the 1993 tour.

The approach helped to build momentum, meaning the Lions finished with 11 wins from 13 games.

The early tour games were won, but weaknesses were exposed in the pack.

Many of these were ironed out after ruthless scrummaging sessions with Jim Telfer, but a surprise loss to the Blue Bulls was followed by problems with injuries and suspensions.

The critical point of the tour came against Gauteng when a 70-yard try by Bentley turned the game and set the tone for the rest of the matches.

Natal were smashed 42-12 in a game that was built up as the 'fourth test' to at last make South Africa sit up and take notice.

Consistently superb kicking from Neil Jenkins won him the Test full-back spot ahead of Tim Stimpson, but the electrifying Rob Howley was forced out of the trip with a shoulder injury.

If the Lions were now being taken seriously, few actually expected them to win the first Test at Newlands.

The surprise front row of Tom Smith, Keith Wood and Paul Wallace were deemed too lightweight and it was thought the Springbok pack would overwhelm them.

The home side dominated the game, but the Lions pack held their ground and Jenkins' boot kept the scoreboard ticking.

Scott Gibbs and Martin Johnson celebrate victory
Scott Gibbs and Martin Johnson celebrate victory
An inspirational burst and dummy from Matt Dawson late in the game gave him a stunning try and took the Lions to a 25-16 win.

At King's Park, Durban, for the second Test the Boks were even more dominant, but their kicking - from Henry Honiball, Percy Montgomry and Andre Joubert - was atrocious as they failed to land a single shot at goal.

The Lions gave an incredibly gritty performance in defence and Jenkins a perfect kicking display to land 15 points.

The Boks had scored three tries, but a late, glory-grabbing drop goal from Guscott saw the Lions to a remarkable 18-15 success - and a guaranteed series win.

There was a shot at immortality awaiting the Lions in the final Test in Ellis Park, Johannesburg, but it was a game too far.

Much of the tour party was injured or out on its feet, and five changes were made to the Test side.

South Africa pulled away from them in the closing minutes to salvage a 35-16 consolation victory.


1997 Lions: Squad and results
18 May 05 |  Lions in NZ

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