No touring team in any theatre of global sport can match the Lions for outrageous storylines, like the one about the crocodile hunter snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.
Jack van der Schyff paid a severe price for letting the Lions off the hook at the end of the opening Test at Ellis Park in 1955, his missed conversion considered grave enough for the Springbok selectors to give their full- back the last rites before he had time to shower.
From then on, poor old Jack had carte blanche to do the same to the crocs in the Limpopo and Zambesi without any two-legged Lions distracting him from his career as a big-game hunter. Even from this far out, it can be said without fear or favour that nobody involved in the next series will suffer a similar fate.
Professionalism has destroyed more than the Lions’ sense of adventure. In squeezing the life out of a schedule now counted in weeks when it used to be months, it has also squeezed the romanticism of the old-fashioned tour.
The pips having been squeaked one by one, there is no danger of the first Test of the Springbok-Lions series in July 2021 coming close to matching the events surrounding the first Test of the 1955 tour, almost certainly not on the pitch and, most definitely, not off it. Thanks to van der Schyff’s skewed kick, the Lions edged it 23-22.
To his dying day some 40 years later, Dr Danie Craven, still probably the most towering figure in South African rugby, regarded it as the greatest Test match he had seen.
Cliff Morgan saw it as ‘the epitome of what rugby and the whole tour were about – adventure, style, passing the ball and, about the most important thing in rugby, taking chances. Apart from the enjoyment we got out of it, we proved that you must throw the ball about to win matches’.
When van der Schyff lined up the conversion, the charismatic Lions’ captain thought: ‘Oh God, this is it. We’ve lost the game.’
Seconds later, when the final whistle tolled for the Springboks, another Welshman, Swansea’s steel working prop Billy ‘Stoker’ Williams, embraced Morgan with a hint of divine intervention: ‘Cliff, I’m glad we went to chapel last Sunday.’
Attitudes were different back then. When the South African referee awarded the teenaged Irish prodigy Tony O’Reilly a try only to change his mind after a touch judge flagged, the Lions took it on the chin without a murmur of complaint.
“I didn’t think Tony was in touch and nowadays I suppose there would have been hell to pay, people arguing with the referee and the touch judge,’’ Morgan wrote in his autobiography.
“Tony just walked away and so did we all. And maybe that was the difference between the rugby that became professional and the rugby we played on tour.
“We wanted to play hard, wanted to win but our attitude was basically carefree. Maybe we had scored a try, I don’t know, but it didn’t matter. It wasn’t worth an argument.’’
So the Lions made do with five tries instead of six, then survived the last quarter in blazing heat and thin air with 14 men. It took a serious injury to stop Reg Higgins’ phenomenal hounding of the Springboks and the stretcher party were carrying him off behind the posts when the Liverpool flanker told them to stop: ‘I want to see the Lions score another.’
Morgan duly obliged, between the posts. ‘Ok,’ Higgins told the first-aid men. ‘We can go now.’
He had broken a leg so badly that repairing it required a month in hospital. The match had shattered all box-office records for a Lions Test and even if the next Lions fill the ‘Soccer City’ stadium in Soweto to its 94,000 limit, it still won’t eclipse the number set in 1955.
Officially put at 96,000, Morgan swore it was well into six figures. “Thousands more got in without paying,’’ he said. “Tickets were pushed back over fences to people waiting outside to re-use them.
“Another thing that staggered us was that on the touchline, 20 yards from the front of the grandstand, the Springbok selectors sat in a row of chairs on their own.’’
From that vantage point, they dropped van der Schyff from a great height.
The Lions went back to St Colombus where they had worshipped the previous Sunday. And there, before a congregation squeezed in so tightly that not an inch of standing room could be found, Morgan’s choir must have made it sound like a revivalist convention. Imagine the 2021 Lions finding time for that.