The Lions and South Africa: Part 4

(IRB.COM) Wednesday 27 May 2009
By Chris Thau
The Lions and South Africa: Part 4
South Africa won the Test series for the first time in 1903

The first of the 10 British tours in the 20th Century, held in the aftermath of the bitter Second Boer War which ended in 1902, was hailed as a symbol of the healing powers of the game.

Amazingly, a year after the guns fell silent in South Africa, the rugby men on both sides of the British-Boer divide decided, in a superb act of sportsmanship, to go ahead with the tour in order to play rugby, have fun and mend fences between sporting friends.

And, despite losing the Test series for the first time, the tour did just that against the odds, underpinning the success of the history-making Springbok tour three years later.

It was a powerful team, with 10 international players within its ranks, (three other players won their caps on retrun from South Africa), probably more gifted at forward than back, under the captaincy of Scotland’s captain Mark Morrison, who earlier that year had led his country to their second Triple Crown in three years.

Alongside him, there was another Home Union captain, Ireland’s Alf Tedford, arguably one of the finest forwards of his generation, and three future skippers in England front row Frank Stout, who led his country in 1904, and two Scottish captains Dr. David Bedell-Sivright, also a forward, at the time at Cambridge University and half back Louis Greig who was playing for the United Services at the time, with the former captaining the British team to Australia in 1904.

Four Union representation

Morrison was 26 when the visitors arrived in South Africa and had led Scotland on 15 occasions, having made his international debut against Wales in 1896 and retired a year after the tour, but not before he led his country to their third Home Unions title in four years in 1904.

In a subtle act of poetic justice Greig, who played in all three Tests in 1903, captained the formidable Scottish XV that beat the 1906 Springboks, the only Home Union to defeat the visitors.

The first British tour of the 20th Century included for the first time players from all four Home Unions with eight Englishmen, seven Scots and five Irish with the Welsh representation confined to a lone player, the Newport and Wales centre Reginald Skrimshire, who became the top scorer of the tour and was widely praised by the South Africans for his silky skills, pace and vision. Despite his obvious talent, Skrimshire, capped three times in 1899, never played for Wales again.

The tour started at Newlands against a powerful Western Province Country, fielding 10 Stellenbosch University players, including Johannes Albertus Loubser and Jacob Daniel Krige, under the captaincy of August Markőtter, skipper of the unbeaten Maties.

By defeating the visitors 13-7, Markőtter’s men entered history as the first non-Test side to defeat a Lions team in South Africa, while their captain became famous as a coach, rugby thinker and selector who crafted the playing framework that enabled South Africa to become a leading power in the world game.

The opening match was a clear warning about the strength of South African rugby, confirmed by two further defeats at Newlands against Western Province selections, in matches two and three, with both local selections captained by the legendary Barry Heatlie in his third Test series against the visiting British.


The theme for the 2009 IRB Hall of Fame induction is The Lions and South African rugby - Vote for your favourite candidates by CLICKING HERE >>


By the end of the tour Morrison’s men had only won 11 of the 22 encounters, yet with the first two Tests drawn, the defeat by two tries to nothing in the final and crucial Test meant that they had lost the series as well.

Captained again by the providential Heatlie, who had led the South Africans to their first ever win in an international in the final Test of the 1896 British tour, the hosts, fielding a strong combination of 11 Western Province and four Transvaal players, won 8-0 to secure the Test series for the first time ever.

In his account of the tour, Telford pointed out that kindness of the hosts, the incredible welcome in every corner of the country was the main and unforgettable feature of a happy tour.

Rugby wise, he also noted the difference between the quality of the visitors’ forwards and the three quarters, “not anything like international class”, and the handicap of “hard grounds up country which were all against good forward play and secondly we found the high altitude inland a severe handicap”. 

The South Africans wore again, the lucky green Old Diocesan jerseys supplied by Heatlie for the first time for the final Test of the 1896 series, which were adopted from then on as the strip of the team.

On his return from South Africa, Morrison advised the RFU that, in his view, the South Africans were ready to come to the Mother Country to measure up against the might of the four Home Unions.

His suggestion was strongly supported by his tour manager and captain of the previous tour to South Africa Johnny Hammond and as a result the RFU invited the South Africans to send a team to tour the British Isles in 1906. Paul Roos and Paddy Carolin, who played in the third winner-takes-all Test at Newlands, became the captain and vice captain of the 1906 tourists respectively.

Lions pride of 1910

By the time the 23 British players – eight Englishmen, six Irish, six Welsh and three Scots – managed by the RFU’s William Cail and Captain Walter Rees of the WRU and captained by Ireland’s Dr Tommy Smyth – boarded ‘Edinburgh Castle’ at Southampton the success of the 1906 Springboks, who had defeated beat both Wales and Ireland while drawing with England, had permeated through South African rugby, which was brimming with confidence eager to take the visitors on.

Four additional players, including the former Wallaby Tom Richards, who had played for Bristol against the 1906 Springboks, England forward Frank Handford, Scotland half back Eric Milroy and Wales forward Jim Webb joined at various stages the 1910 tour party which decimated by injury. Overall 27 players, of whom 18 were internationals, played for the British in the 24 matches of the three-month tour.

“The impression of the kindly welcome we received everywhere in South Africa is still more vivid”, wrote former Irish captain Alexander Foster, one of the 1910 tourists.

After a sizzling start, which included a hard-fought narrow win over the Western Province – unbeaten on their home ground for 13 years – the tourists hit the high altitude in Kimberley against an equally strong Griqualand West team, on a ground “bare of grass” on which the visitors had run out of breath after the first 15 minutes, when the hosts scored all their points.

“The visiting team was a powerful one, much better than its ultimate record (played 24, won 13, drawn 3 and 8 lost) suggests,” noted Billy Millar, the Western Province flank forward who captained South Africa in the last two Tests. 

Although Millar, who was born in 1883 and was a member of the 1906 Springbok tour to Britain, he had to wait until 1910 to win his first cap against the visiting British. Having led the Cape Colony to a satisfying 19-0 win over the visitors, he captained the Springboks in the second Test when the British, inspired by the outstanding Cherry Pillman, won 8-3 to level the series. He retained the captaincy for the third Test, when he led the magnificent fightback of the Springboks to win the decisive encounter 21-5 and secure the series.

“What a remarkably erratic lot this British team was” he noted, mentioning full back Stanley Williams, centre J.Ponty Jones, winger Jack Spoors, scrum half George Isherwood and forwards Harry Jarman, Phil Waller, WR Tyrell, Robert Stevenson and Jim Webb among the outstanding visiting players.

However he identified the “outstanding brilliance” of Pillman as the deciding factor in the second Test: “I assert confidently that if ever a man can have been said to have won an international match through his unorthodox and lone-handed efforts, it can be said of the inspired black-haired Pillman I played against on the Crusaders’ ground on August 27, 1903, when the “Rover” played as fly half, mark you not as forward.”

The hard grounds of South Africa suited Pillman, the 21-year-old Blackheath and England wing forward who won the first of his 18 caps earlier that year against Scotland and became the leading personality of the tour. The lean 6ft 3ins hound was so supremely skilful that he was able to play fly half in the last two Tests, and revert to his wing forward position for the last match of the tour against Western Province.

Dr. Danie Craven simply said that Pillman “must be looked upon as one of the originators of what became known as the loose forward.” One could wonder what might have been had Pillman been able to play in the first Test, which he missed due to injury. Although not a recognised kicker he finished the tour as the leading Lions scorer with 67 points – six tries, three penalties, 18 conversions and a drop goal.

IRB Hall of Fame - You decide!

The theme for the 2009 IRB Hall of Fame induction is The Lions and South African rugby - Vote for your favourite candidates by CLICKING HERE >>