Sometimes the weight of history can loom large. Sometimes it’s an added motivator and other times players can simply push it to the back of their minds. The question is, when the latest crop of Lions pull on their British & Irish Lions 2021 shirts for the first test against South Africa, how much will history play a part in their performance?
South Africa might not have had it all their own way down the years, but this part of the world hasn’t always been a happy hunting ground for the Lions. Will the ghosts of 2009 come back to haunt, or will the roaring Lions of 1997 be the inspiration for a celebrated triumph once again?
Lions win percentage vs. the Springboks: Test matches
In test matches, the Lions have a 36.96% win percentage against South Africa. Considering the Lions always play on away turf in these tests, it’s not bad.
Of the 46 test matches – incidentally the most played against any side – the Lions have won 17, they’ve been on the losing side 23 times and there’s been six draws down the years. Of the other two of the big three Southern Hemisphere teams for example, the Lions fare much better against Australia with a 73.91% win record (winning 17 tests out of 23) but much worse against the All Blacks – having won just 7 of 41 test matches (17.07%).
The record against South Africa definitely stands up to scrutiny. And test match wins are certainly something, but it’s only of real importance when it comes to claiming series wins.
Lions series wins vs. the Springboks
The Lions started off in style against South Africa with the first ever tour to this part of the world in 1891. Not only did the Lions enjoy a clean sweep of test wins, but they were also triumphant in all 17 of their provincial matches too.
Fast forward five years later and whilst the Springboks might have won their first test match against the Lions, our boys were once again successful on South African turf, taking the series 3-1. So far so good for the Lions.
Unfortunately, the Lions had to wait nearly 80 years and eight tours later for their next series win in South Africa – 1974’s triumphant tour. In between these Lions wins, the Boks took six series wins with the Lions only winning four test matches out of 20. Not so great for our boys in red, white, blue and green.
Following 1974’s triumph, the Lions famously won again 23 years later in 1997. And who could forget that iconic Jeremy Guscott series winning drop goal in the second test? We definitely can’t! And then on to 2009. The less said about that one the better. The Lions may have taken the final test at Ellis Park, but it was all over by then following the heart-breaking second test at Loftus Versfeld in Pretoria. We all know what happened, we don’t need to go over it again!
That Springboks win in 2009 took South Africa’s series record to eight wins in total, to the Lions four with just one drawn series in 1955. There’s no doubt the Lions have some ground to make up in the overall stakes. Can they do it this time out against the world champions?
The Lions vs. The World Cup winners
Facing the world champions is always a daunting task, and it’s one the Lions have had to do in their last two tours, with the Springboks winning the Webb Ellis Cup on home turf in 1995 before the Lions 1997 Tour, and in 2007 before the 2009 tour.
So, what can the history books tell us on this one? That honours are even when the Lions come up against the Boks as world champions, with one series win apiece. Who will make history this time out is the question?
But this tour is a tour like no other – there’s no historical roadmap for it. There’s the lack of supporters with all matches expected to take place behind closed doors. And there’s the fact that the last time the Springboks played a test match was that successful World Cup final triumph against England in 2019. And with just two warm up matches against Georgia before the first test, it will be interesting to see the cohesiveness of this World Cup winning unit.
COVID-19 has re-imagined the sporting playing field – there’s no doubt, this will be a historic series in more ways than one. Let’s hope it’s a famous one in Lions history too.