Mind Games: A Lions tour is the ultimate rugby honour

2013-06-16 14:00

The atmosphere on the British and Irish Lions tour to Australia seems a far cry from the fervour that breaks out when the finest rugby players from the misty isles visit South Africa.

But the Lions will not be back in South Africa until 2021 as tours are on a strict roster – every four years, alternating between South Africa, New Zealand and Australia – and the “red shirts” were here in 2009.

Lions tours go to the essence of rugby in this country. The game came to South Africa via British missionaries and soldiers – from the original pioneers under Bill Maclagan travelling by boat, ox wagon and rail.

Maclagan’s team had in their baggage a trophy donated by the chairman of the castle shipping line to be presented to the team that fared best against them, which turned out to be Griqualand West, afterwards to be used as the symbol of supremacy in an interprovincial tournament – the chairman was Sir Donald Currie.

Many are the fables surrounding Lions tourists – the Rev Walter Carey, who coined the Barbarians’ motto, “rugby football is a game for a gentleman of all classes, but never a bad sportsman of any class”, came on tour, liked what he saw, stayed and later became bishop of Bloemfontein – but few rival that of Radio 702’s John Robbie.

When Billy Beaumont’s team toured in 1980, Irish scrum-half Robbie was not included.

Instead, he went on an Ireland tour to North America and was then invited to join an invitation team to play a match for the Goshawks in the then Rhodesia.

But fate intervened. The Lions tourists picked up injuries and when scrum-halves Terry Holmes and Colin Patterson went down, an SOS went out to Robbie, who was a short flight away across the border.

Travelling light, Robbie was meant to be away for just a week, but he eventually stayed for more than two months, touring with the Lions – performing so well he was included in the side for the final test.

He came out again with Ireland, was offered employment in South Africa, decided to stay, got offered a chance to break into radio, took to broadcasting like a duck to water and never looked back.

There were others too. Scotland’s Gordon Waddell went on two Lions tours. In South Africa in 1962 he met and later married Mary Oppenheimer, became a director in the Anglo fold and later a member of Parliament for the Progressive Party.

Business magnate Tony O’Reilly (1955) was a darling of the crowds who later became proprietor of the SA Independent Group of newspapers, allegedly at the behest of his good friend Nelson Mandela, and another Irishman, Roger Young (1966 and 1968), settled in the Cape and ran a prominent dental practice in Pinelands.

As Robbie said in his autobiography, The Game of My Life, a Lions tour is the ultimate rugby honour. The Aussies are just taking time to catch on!

» sports@citypress.co.za

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