Ireland kick-off their summer tour of South Africa this Saturday in what will be, remarkably, only their fifth time visiting the country.
Previous expeditions occurred in 1961, 1981, 1998 and 2004. In fact 1961 was only Ireland’s third tour ever, having previously been to Canada in 1899 and Argentina and Chile in 1952. The 1961 party was captained by Ronnie Dawson with Noel Murphy Snr acting as Manger. They played four games, won three and lost one, the one and only loss occurring in the singular Test match on a score of 24-8.
The 1981 trip was shrouded in controversy from the outset. A dozen or so players were unavailable to manager Paddy Madigan and head coach Tom Kiernan for a variety of reasons, including political convictions, with a number objecting to the tour owing to the apartheid regime in place in South Africa at that time. Ireland played seven matches, winning three and losing four.
The three victories came against very poor calibre opposition, chosen to meet the multiracial requirements of the tour. In the Test matches however, the tourists performed well with a credible 23-15 defeat in the first Test. The second Test, a week later, was expected to be an easy victory for the hosts, who only squeezed through 12-10 courtesy of a Naas Botha drop goal. It was a superb showing from Ireland, shorn many of their regulars. Several of the old stagers, captain Fergus Slattery among them rolled back the years in this series.
In that year’s Five Nations the Irish side had been whitewashed, albeit losing all four games by a combined total of only twelve points. A further four-point defeat at home to Australia the following November would be their seventh defeat on the bounce. However, in the immediate aftermath of the tour, veteran No. 8 Willie Duggan said ‘There’s a Triple Crown side in Ireland at the moment’. Those words were to prove prophetic as the following February, Ireland secured its first Triple Crown in 33 years.
1998 saw the Ireland senior team undertake its first tour as a professional outfit, although the development side had been in New Zealand the previous year. South Africa was now the ‘Rainbow Nation’ with apartheid abolished. This was just three years after that iconic image of Nelson Mandela presenting the World Cup trophy to Springboks captain Francois Pienaar.
The side was managed by Donal Lenihan and coached by Warren Gatland. The New Zealander had been the emergency replacement for Brian Ashton after the Englishman resigned one year into his six-year contract, after a one-point defeat to Scotland at Lansdowne Road the previous February. Ashton or ‘Shat-on’, as some of the players nicknamed him, had been constantly frustrated by the poor skill levels of the players he had inherited and indeed the set-up in general and didn’t hold back in expressing these views.
When asked one time of the alleged rift between himself and then team manager Pat Whelan he replied cuttingly, ‘Pat’s an amateur and I’m a professional’. On taking over, Gatland adopted a far more pragmatic approach and to a certain degree it worked, with Ireland losing agonisingly by two points away to France in his first game. By the time the tour came around, he would be travelling without three of his four Lions, namely Keith Wood, Jeremy Davidson and Eric Miller, although Wood did ultimately answer an SOS after an injury crisis and travelled, but to participate in the Tests only and packed down alongside fellow victorious Lion from the previous summer, Paul Wallace in the front row.
Ireland were overrun in the test series 33-17 and 33-0, with both games noted for acts of violence from both sides, and the second Test still referred to today as the Battle of Pretoria. Ulsterman Paddy Johns, then of Saracens, captained the side and his willingness to do whatever necessary was recalled in his autobiography The Quiet Enforcer by teammate Justin Fitzpatrick, who made his debut at loosehead prop in that series, starting both Tests.
When watching the match videos, recalled Fitzpatrick, the Irish looked like ‘sickly children playing against these bronzed provincial players, the effect exacerbated by the bright sunlight which showed up just how pasty we were and how much fitter the opposition looked’.
What started as a joke saw Gatland bring in bottles of fake tan, with the option of using it left to the players themselves. Several did, among them Johns. Although, according to Fitzpatrick, he made the error of applying it only after he had his playing gear on so when he took his jersey off ‘the contrast between the ‘orange’ bits and his pale Irish skin was hilarious’, in a scene that must have resembled Tony Angelino, the Singing Dustman and Tom Jones wannabe of Only Fools and Horses fame.
The touring party was also noteworthy for containing three members of the one family, Richard, Paul and David Wallace. There were also five matches against provincial opposition resulting in two victories and three defeats. While Gatland must be credited with bringing a certain level of organisation to his charges, much of the approach at that time was unsophisticated and this was to ultimately come to a head the following year in Lens, when we were unceremoniously dumped out of the World Cup by Argentina, after attempting to win the game late on with a fourteen-man lineout.
It was to be six years before another tour to South Africa occurred; this time captained by Brian O’Driscoll with Eddie O’Sullivan the head coach. Having just secured the country’s first Triple Crown since 1985, there was a genuine feeling that South Africa were there for the taking. They had a new coach in Jake White and their last game had been a World Cup quarter-final defeat against New Zealand in what had been a disastrous tournament for them.
This was a ‘tour’ in the very modern sense of the word, in that the only games were the Test matches, with no midweek games taking place. Ireland actually led 14-11 early in the second half of the first test, but three further tries by the Boks saw them win out 31-17. The second Test saw further frustration for Ireland, who were within six points of the hosts before Percy Montgomery put the game out of sight with the last kick of the game to give his side a 26-17 victory.
Ireland would go on to gain some bit of revenge the following November with a 17-12 victory at Lansdowne Road (a first victory over the Springboks since 1965) with Ronan O’Gara scoring all of his side’s points, including slotting a drop goal for the third game in a row against the South Africans. This was a particularly sweet victory given that South African Coach Jake White had commented in the build up that only three Irish players, namely Brian O’Driscoll, Malcolm O’Kelly and Paul O’Connell would be good enough for inclusion in the Springboks’ squad. Indeed since that tour of 2004, Ireland have met South Africa in Dublin on six occasions, winning four.
The 2016 tour sees Ireland playing South Africa on three consecutive Saturdays in Cape Town, Johannesburg and Port Elizabeth respectively. With the second Test taking place at altitude and the final game in any series traditionally proving a struggle for most sides, not just Ireland, the first Test represents their best opportunity of victory.
Owing to a number of regulars being injured, in particular Johnny Sexton, the shackles may be off to some degree and it could represent a huge opportunity for those on the fringes to shine and indeed the side as a whole to play in a less structured fashion. Regardless of how the Irish approach the series, the physicality with which the South Africans play and the undoubted toll that it will take on the tourists will ensure that almost every member of the 32-man squad will get an opportunity at some stage.
Kick-off on Saturday is at 4pm (Irish time).
James Neville, Pundit Arena