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'This was going to be one of the toughest tours of our lives' - The 1997 British & Irish Lions tour of South Africa | Spirit of Rugby - Ep2

By Josh Raisey

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RugbyPass is sharing unique stories from iconic British and Irish Lions tours to South Africa in proud partnership with The Famous Grouse, the Spirit of Rugby.

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In episode two of Spirit of Rugby, Jim Hamilton talks with Jeremy Guscott, Ian McGeechan, Matt Dawson and John Bentley about their recollections of the 1997 British and Irish Lions tour of South Africa. Dawson’s try in the first Test and Guscott’s series-clinching drop-goal in the second have gone down in Lions folklore, treasured moments that are both relived in the episode.

JEREMY GUSCOTT
Realistically, the Lions should never win. Let’s face it, New Zealand, South Africa or Australia are normally the No1 side in the world, particularly when we have gone to South Africa they have always been blooming world champions… it was the first professional Lions tour.

“The Boks are route one. We’re coming at you, we’re bigger and stronger than you, well we think we are, we’re going to smash you out the way and you shouldn’t have the right to be on the same field as us. I know we were given very little chance of doing anything over there. I understand the Lions shouldn’t have a chance, but you can’t start telling people you have no chance. That rankled with me a little bit, because if you look around the squad, the squad wasn’t bad. There weren’t bad players on that trip.

“[On Dawson’s iconic try in the first Test] Big overarm basketball pass goes in, (Gary) Teichmann literally seems to follow it and Dawson casually carries on. The line is there and he dabs it down like a good three quarter and says ‘thanks very much’.

“The South Africans were scoring tries,” added Guscott, reflecting on the second Test. “Jenko [Neil Jenkins], our full-back, was just stroking balls over beautifully, keeping the scoreboard ticking. Daws gets the ball and there must have been a moment where he has looked up and gone, ‘It’s Guscott, can I risk giving the ball to him?’

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“The ball comes to me and my natural reaction is just to strike it. Gibbsy [Scott Gibbs] comes over, jumps on me, kisses me, a couple of high fives, we all run back, so it was pretty chaotic for three minutes then the whistle went and it was all done and dusted and over.”

IAN MCGEECHAN
“The fact that New Zealand couldn’t beat them for over 100 years in South Africa shows how difficult it is. They’re very proud. The biggest thing we wanted, we felt we had the players with an attitude, approach and the talent to actually play the game slightly differently.

“You know that under the pressure that the Lions will bring, it’s the group, the whole group, that makes the Test match squad. Everything you do and everything you can achieve is because of that collective approach and the unselfishness of what’s given.

“That drop goal started with Jerry Guscott and Neil Back winning a ruck on the halfway line and Keith Wood at scrum-half kicking the ball down the touchline, a lineout, Gregor Townsend taking the ball into the heart of the South African forwards.”

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MATT DAWSON
“You knew you were up against the officials, you were up against the crowd, you were up against the players in a very different environment. We were acutely aware this was probably going to be one of the toughest tours of our lives and we had to get our head around it pretty quick.

“We all had to understand that no one thinks that we could win this, nobody. Nobody outside this room and your family believe you can win. The South Africans have a confidence that they can win against the Lions. Every single time that we met, we were understanding what it was like to put the shirt on, even just to hold the shirt.

“That was done out of sheer panic, don’t worry about that [Dawson’s first Test try]. It wasn’t like there was a planned move and they were going to fall for it. I wasn’t supposed to play because Rob Howley was the first choice. He was injured so they haven’t done any homework on me. What is little six-cap wonder Matt Dawson going to do? He’s not going to cause any problems.

“In the second Test in Durban, we are one-nil up so the place is baying for our blood. We ran onto the field first and then you saw the likes of Os du Randt, Mark Andrews, Teichmann, all these guys, running down this ramp into the field. It was like we were the gladiators and they had opened the gates and lions and tigers and everything were being thrown into the pit and saying ‘go on, deal with that’.

“Jerry Guscott, one of the greatest players I ever played with, but would never call for the ball unless there was something on, not just for him but for the team. I just remember Jerry screaming my name ‘Daws’ and instinctively I know I can’t mess about with this.”

JOHN BENTLEY
“We said, ‘Look, we need to front up a little bit here. We need to antagonise them a little bit and retaliate first’. Just to get a little bit of respect. It was brutal. I mean, some of the forwards, thank God I didn’t play in the forwards.”

When looking back on the second Test, Bentley added: “I was an hour and a half from playing the biggest game of my life and do you know what I was doing? I was crying. I was sat crying. I didn’t dare look around because I didn’t want to be seen to be crying. I just sneakily brought my hands to wipe the tears. But the talking was done then.

“We just hung in there, just hung in there. We found ourselves second best in the game but your man then stepped up and created some history.”

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'This was going to be one of the toughest tours of our lives' - The 1997 British & Irish Lions tour of South Africa | Spirit of Rugby - Ep2

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