Beware the Barbarians

When the Springboks take the field against the Barbarians at Twickenham in London on Saturday it will be not quite 50 years since the most famous invitation team in the world defeated Avril Malan’s Springboks.

Tours were tours in those days and Malan’s side played 30 matches in Britain and Ireland, winning 28 and drawing one before conceding the traditional trophy, a Springbok head, after losing 6-0 to the Baabaas at the old Cardiff Arms Park.

Included in those 28 wins were victories against the four home unions and, following Peter de Villiers’s team’s 21-17 defeat against Scotland on the current tour, that remains the last time the Springboks achieved a Grand Slam.

There has been talk for a decade or more about the Barbarians being an anachronism in the modern game. The sheer volume of rugby being played these days leaves precious little space for “fun” and this week’s fixture falls outside the International Rugby Board’s window. That means that instead of being a gathering of the best British and Irish players, it is an amalgam of southern hemisphere stars.

Nonetheless, the Baabaas team that won on February 4 1961 will mark the occasion with a lunch at Twickenham on Saturday. Rugby Union did not use replacements in those days, so there were only 15 names to conjure with. Of those, loosehead prop Gordon Wood, the father of Ireland and British Lions star Keith, has died, while illness has robbed the gathering of three legendary names: Syd Millar and Tony O’Reilly of Ireland and Richard Sharp of England.

Derek Morgan will be there, however, the scorer of one of the two (three point) tries on the day. At 75, he remains active in the game and was president of the Rugby Football Union in 2002/03.

He told the Mail & Guardian: “I played three times against the Springboks on that tour. I captained North East Counties against them in Newcastle on New Year’s Eve and a week later, I played for England at Twickenham. We lost 17-3 in Newcastle, but a funny thing happened in the clubhouse after the game.

“The Springbok manager, Ferdie Bergh, was trying to get amorous with one of the barmaids and she didn’t like it. She complained to one of the local farmers and when Ferdie wouldn’t stop, this fellow tapped him on the shoulder and decked him. When asked why the manager was sporting a large black eye, the press were told that he had walked into a door!”

Powerful forwards
The Boks beat England 5-0 the following week and, much as was the case last week, the immense power of the South African forwards carried the day. Seventy years of Barbarian tradition suggested that the final match of the tour would be a spectacle of running rugby, but Morgan, and a few others who had played against Malan’s side, had other ideas.

They were helped by the 11th-hour withdrawal of Irish scrumhalf Andy Mulligan who had gone down with flu. “He would have thrown the ball about and we would have lost,” said Morgan. Just to emphasise that the past is a different country, the Baabaas were having lunch on the day of the game when Mulligan withdrew. Morgan takes up the story: “The replacement scrumhalf was Billy Watkins from Newport and he had just stuffed himself with a steak dinner. I only had a bowl of soup. I told him he was playing and he protested, so I took him to the toilet and stuck my fingers down his throat. I said, you just keep us going forward, and he did. Richard Sharp at flyhalf didn’t see much of the ball that day.”

AC Parker’s book, The Springboks: 1891-1970, describes the game thus. “The Barbarians … fully deserved their 6-0 triumph through two first-half tries scored by Derek Morgan and Haydn Morgan, the first from a rash tap-back by Piet van Zyl which resulted in Piet Uys kicking up against Derek Morgan. The three Baabaas loose forwards, the two Morgans and Gerry Culliton, had a major share in this upset victory and Haydn Mainwaring was great at fullback.”

Looking back like a good back-rower, Morgan gives the credit to the all-Irish front row of Wood, Ronnie Dawson and Millar: “The Springboks did not have weakness anywhere in the pack, but their front row was great. The Baabaas front row matched them and that gave us the freedom to play our game in the back row.”

Did they party after the game? Did they, hell! “We were too knackered! We sat in the bar and had a few quiet pints. We just didn’t have the energy.”

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