The 1997 tour to South Africa was the first in the professional era and Scottish Provident was the main sponsor with their logo on the red shirt. This was the tour that cemented the name of coach Ian McGeechan as a top coach. The team was led by Martin Johnson and no one expected them to beat the reigning World Champions. However thanks to amazing selections and a true grit spirit they won the series 2-1.
Ian McGeechan coached the side for the third time, with Fran Cotton twice a Lion in South Africa in the role of manager. McGeechan took six former rugby league players in an attempt to fast-track the squad into more professional discipline and added specialist coaches in Jim Telfer, who drilled the forwards, kicking guru Dave Alred and technical analyst Andy Keast.
Just as the result of the series was a surprise, so too were some of the selections that achieved it. Paul Wallace and Tom Smith emerged as pint-sized tormentors of the massive Springbok front row and Jeremy Davidson came through to partner Johnson at lock. In the backs, John Bentley, newly returned from league, took the right wing berth nine years after his last England cap, while Neil Jenkins was played at full-back to ensure his kicking prowess was still available even though Gregor Townsend was preferred at stand-off.
The Lions lost only one provincial match and in the first Test they thoroughly out-thought and out-played the Springboks. Johnson, Lawrence Dallaglio and Keith Wood had the tourists’ pack on the front foot, while Jenkins was given an easy ride at full-back and kept the Lions’ score board ticking over until two tries in the closing stages from Matt Dawson and Alan Tait the former selling three South Africans an outrageous dummy, sealed an epic 18-15 win.
The second Test hinged on a staggering defensive effort from the Lions to resist the all in attack thrown at them for 80 minutes by the Boks. The hosts scored three tries to none and missed six kicks at goal, only to find Jenkins continually pegging them back with each of five vital penalties. With three minutes to play and the scores level at 15-15, the Lions dragged themselves into one last attack. From a ruck, the ball came back to Jeremy Guscott, who coolly dropped the goal that won the series.
South Africa finally got it right in the closing Test, scoring three tries to one and at last kicking their goals to win 35-16. The series, though, already belonged to the Lions.