South Africa Memories: Mike Burton and the 1972 tour

John PullinThere was a lot of pressure on us not to tour South Africa in 1972. The apartheid regime had attracted worldwide condemnation and I remember being approached by a girl before a Gloucester match at Richmond, imploring me not to go. I wasn’t discourteous to her, but I told her this was possibly the only chance I was going to get to go to South Africa and I had to be there.
It was my first major tour and it was the same for a lot of other lads, so we got on the plane full of hope. But in many ways we were very naive. I’d heard about the altitude and all that, but we were going down there to play seven matches with just 26 players. There were no neutral referees and we got beaten up a bit, but we were flag-bearers for our country.
John Pullin, our captain, was one of the great players. He’d been on the Lions tour to South Africa in 1968 and on the plane he told me: “Mate, when you get out there it’s going to be hard.” And it was. You’re playing on the high veldt, the pitches are rock hard, the grass burns your legs and the dust goes up your nostrils every time you get smashed hard into the ground.
We thrived on that tour, though. We’d gone into it off the back of a Five Nations whitewash, so it had been a bad season and the tour looked pretty daunting. But we won five and drew one of our six lead-up matches and were confident ahead of the single Test in Jo’burg.
Standing in the tunnel before the Test, I looked at the Springboks and they had huge forwards. Guys like their captain, Piet Greyling, Jan Ellis and John Williams were seriously big men and when you looked at their front row, which consisted of Niek Bezuidenhout, Piston van Wyk and Sakkie Sauermann, I thought to myself: “Christ, what’s going to happen here?”
I turned to our full-back, Sam Doble, and said: “It’s a big day today,” and then it was out through the tunnel and into the sunlight with 100,000 rugby mad South Africans packed into Ellis Park. The roar went up as the Springboks emerged and you knew that this match was for real.
We toughed it out, though, and at half-time we were leading something like 9-6. We were doing all right and then suddenly Alan Morley cut in off his wing, hit a perfect 45-degree angle and scored. We knew we had a real chance then, but they responded by cutting up rough.
Aluminium stud met skull and Stack Stevens, our loose head prop, had to go off with a horrible wound in his head. There were no replacements then so I moved to loosehead while John Watkins, our Gloucester flanker who was 14 stone wet through, filled in at tighthead.
I remember packing down for our next scrum, thinking: “It ain’t ever going to be worse than this!” We were 6,000 feet above sea level, 12,000 miles from home, in our own half, with a South African referee, in a seven-man pack, with no replacements and half-an-hour to go.
John Pullin nodded and I knew what had to be done. That was the signal to start a roughhouse and I had to make sure my opposite number understood we were playing on our terms. And he did. We did what we had to do, he was nice and quiet after that and we got through. There were no citing officers to put you on report, it was just a jungle out there and we won.
John wasn’t a captain who shouted or thumped the table, but he’d say to us things like: “Just remember, when you’re coming off the field make sure there’s nothing you regret that you could have done but didn’t.”  We all helped each other and it was a great victory.
It didn’t dawn on us that we’d made history at the time, but 40 years on people like to talk about that game and I still see a lot of those lads now. We’re all still great mates.
17 May, Durban: Natal 0 England 19
20 May, Cape Town: Western Province 6 England 9
22 May, Cape Town: SA Federation XV 6 England 11
24 May, Port Elizabeth: SAARB Leopards 3 England 36
27 May, Pretoria: Northern Transvaal 13 England 13
30 May, Kimberley: Griqualand West 21 England 60

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