100 years of South African rugby: Part three

(IRB.COM) Saturday 11 November 2006

As Jake White's Springboks' prepare to challenge England at Twickenham, Chris Thau brings us the final of his three-part series celebrating South African rugby's centenary year, in which he recounts the 1906 tour of UK, Ireland and France.

The Springboks Tour 1906

About 12 months after the first All Blacks were unveiled, the first Spingboks started out on their triumphant march captained by Paul Roos. The visitors arrived in the British Isles, with the Home Unions still, “shocked and chastened” as a contemporary writer put it, by the sheer brilliance of the New Zealand visitors. The 1906 scene was set for an epic confrontation, the South Africans eager to follow into the footsteps of their illustrious predecessors and the four Home Unions desperately keen to ascertain the supremacy of the Mother Country dented by the 1905 tourists.

“The main difference between the first Springboks and the first All Blacks,” observed one of the contemporaries, “was that while the former brought with them no strange innovations in strategy and had no individual geniuses of the calibre of Wallace (WJ) and Hunter (J), they played orthodox rugger, which everybody could understand, with the highest skill and determination.” And as another would add, they were also blessed with remarkable pace, power and confidence. The lessons of the three British tours of 1891, 1896 and 1903 had been fully assimilated by South African rugby and the newly baptised Springboks were ready to display their brand of efficient, winning rugby on the big European stage.

The first match was in Northampton against Eastern Counties and was won easily by the Springboks after an exhibition of running rugby brought them nine tries. In the second match in Leicester, the visitors scored five tries and two drop goals to defeat a powerful Midlands team captained by VH Cartwright, 29-0, centre S.C de Melker giving an exhibition of centre three-quarter play. It was also the match, in which the visitors won the heart of the public, as Carolin recalls.

“That the crowds were not particularly prejudiced in our favour, was evident in the opening games, particularly at Leicester. There, in fact, certain sections of the crowd were so hostile that Cartwright had play stopped one more than one occasion, and appealed to them to be fair. Then however, came a most scintillating passing movement by our backs and the crowd changed in a flash and rose to its feet and cheered us to the echo. From that moment our march was a triumphal one; we had won the hearts of the British sportsmen, and wherever we went we were received with tremendous enthusiasm.”

The tour progressed in similar fashion, though the North and Devon in England and Newport and Glamorgan County in Wales gave the visitors a warning of things to come. As Carolin acknowledged in his notes, the Springboks felt lucky to win the match against Glamorganshire, who ‘gave our men a terrific gruelling. Luck was certainly with us in the game, where better defence than we showed has rarely been seen, and in which Marsberg gave a display at fullback which can seldom have been surpassed’.

The mystery of the ‘loose head’ in the scrum, effectively employed by the Welsh, was solved by Carolin and WA Millar, who, although not among those originally selected, made the tour as a replacement for BP Mosenthal. The Springbok pack practiced the ‘loose head’ in the dining room of the Gloucester Arms Hotel and, as a result, their forwards came to enjoy a wealth of possession, which Kriege, Loubster, Stegman and the rest of the backs manufactured into tries. Matches against universities, won with comparative ease by the visitors, were followed by the first foray into Scotland, against the South in Hawick; the fast Springbok backs prevailed against the hard Scottish pack, winning by 32-5 in what was a good springboard for the weekend test against the Scots, the already the sixteenth match of the tour

It was time for Scotland, who had led for most of the match against the 1905 All Blacks only to lose 12-7 in the final stages in Inverleith, to do themselves justice. In the Glasgow match, played at the soccer stadium Hampden Park, there was neither the frost nor the fog that affected the game against New Zealand the previous year and, in the event, with the Scottish forwards led by ‘Darkie’ Bedell-Sivright and JC MacCallum dominant, the match was decided by the swift movements of two back divisions which ‘surpassed themselves in speed, skill and deft handling’, as a contemporary observer put it, that made the day.

KG MCLeod, who had made his international debut the previous year as a 17-year old, scored a memorable try following a cross-kick by P Monro. A further try by ABHL Purves following a Scottish forward rush dealt the mortal blow to the gallant Springboks, who were decimated by injury. Already without injured skipper Roos, the South Africans lost Brink, Mare and then Marsberg during the match but battled bravely until the end against the rampant Scots.

A return to winning ways against North of Scotland, with only four of the players from the test side in action, was followed by the Irish test. With Paul Roos back in the side - and again wearing white to avoid a clash with the Irish jerseys - the Springboks played like men possessed against a strong Irish side led by the legendary Basil Maclear. The Springboks won 12-3 and after a game against Dublin University returned to the UK mainland for the Welsh test.

As the conquerors of the All Blacks the previous year and welcoming back the great Gwyn Nicholls, Wales were expected to win. But on the day it was the Springboks back division boasting Krige, Loubster, Joubert and Marsberg that dominated to inflict a devastating 11-0 defeat on the incredulous Welsh. The silence at the end of the game in Swansea had ‘almost material consistency’, noted an eye witness. “We were a very happy band in Swansea that night,” noted Carolin.

The last test against England, a week later at Crystal Palace ended in a 3-3 draw on a heavy, greasy field that naturally deprived the South African backs of their expected supremacy. The Springboks scored in the first half through Millar and England levelled the score in the second half, through Freddy Brooks, a Rhodesian who should probably have played for the South Africans. A few more matches were played, including a second defeat, 17-0 at the hands of Cardiff, before the team went over to Paris for an unofficial test against the French and in a one-sided encounter the Springboks demolished the French XV 55-6, to end a most satisfying tour in style.