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First ’Lions’ arrived in SA 130 years ago

A group photograph of the ’England’ side in 1891, although several Scots were in the team and so became known as the British Isles team

A group photograph of the ’England’ side in 1891, although several Scots were in the team and so became known as the British Isles team

Published Jul 24, 2021


While South African rugby fans are looking forward to the Springbok’s first Test match against the British and Irish Lions today, it also marks 130 years since the side first visited SA shores in 1891.

The earliest tour dates back to 1888, when a 21-man squad including players from England, Scotland and Wales, headed to Australia where they played 35 matches against provincial, city and academic sides, winning 27 (no Test matches).

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Three years later, the first tour to South Africa took place after an invitation had been sent by the Western Province Union.

The visiting team was the first to be sanctioned by the Rugby Football Union (RFU) and thanks to this backing from the RFU, the tour was initially billed as the English Rugby Football Team. However it did contain some Scots, one of whom was captain of the tour, Bill Maclagen, and so it became known as the “British Isles” team.

The tour was funded primarily by the Western Province Union and prime minister of the Cape Colony, Cecil Rhodes.

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The first tour match versus the Cape Colony which kicked off, with 20 games played in total

A total of 20 matches were played, with three of those being the first Test matches.

According to the Lions Tour website, the captain was Bill Maclagen and coach named as E Ash.

“The tour was the first to introduce Test matches and three matches were played against South Africa with the British Isles running out comfortable 3-0 winners.

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“At this stage the South African sides were not anywhere near the level of accomplishment that the British were ‒ although they would be quick to catch up as later tours found out,” said the Lions Tour website.

Also of historical importance from this tour was that the British Isles presented Griqualand West, as the best side they faced, with a silver trophy by the name of the Currie Cup.

To this day the Currie Cup remains a hotly contested series in domestic rugby.

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The team’s name “The British Isles” was officially changed to the British Lions on their 1950 tour of New Zealand and Australia.

But prior to that, “The Lions” was the nickname first used by British and South African journalists for the 1924 tour ‒ after the lion emblem on the ties worn by the visiting team.

The lion emblem first came into being when the 1910 team, who came to South Africa, wore jerseys which had a single lion-rampant crest. But, somewhat ironically, this crest was changed for the 1924 tour, when it was exchanged for a four-quartered badge with symbols of the four represented unions which is still worn today, with the lion emblem only on the ties.

Over the last century, many massive battles on the field have taken place as the Lions took on South Africa, New Zealand and Australia in different tours.

The last time the British Lions toured here was in 2009 where they faced South Africa, the 2019 World Cup winners.

The team selection was initially of predominantly Irish and Welsh players, followed by English and Scots players. South Africa won the series 2-1.

This year’s British & Irish Lions tour has been hampered by the Covid-19 and lockdown regulations, with players, particularly among the Springbok squad, going down with the pandemic.

Earlier in the week Springbok captain Siya Kolisi was declared fit to lead the team for today’s historic match, after recovering from Covid.

Also recovering, after dislocating his shoulder in a warm-up game against Japan 18 days ago, Alun Wyn Jones will captain the visiting squad, after he was also declared fit to play earlier on the week.

Sources: and Wiki

The Independent on Saturday

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