South Africa Memories: Mike Burton and the 1972 tour
There was a lot of pressure on us not to tour South Africa in 1972. The apartheid regime had attracted worldwide condemnation and I remember being approached by a girl before a Gloucester match at Richmond, imploring me not to go. I wasn’t discourteous to her, but I told her this was possibly the only chance I was going to get to go to South Africa and I had to be there.
It was my first major tour and it was the same for a lot of other lads, so we got on the plane full of hope. But in many ways we were very naive. I’d heard about the altitude and all that, but we were going down there to play seven matches with just 26 players. There were no neutral referees and we got beaten up a bit, but we were flag-bearers for our country.
John Pullin, our captain, was one of the great players. He’d been on the Lions tour to South Africa in 1968 and on the plane he told me: “Mate, when you get out there it’s going to be hard.” And it was. You’re playing on the high veldt, the pitches are rock hard, the grass burns your legs and the dust goes up your nostrils every time you get smashed hard into the ground.
We thrived on that tour, though. We’d gone into it off the back of a Five Nations whitewash, so it had been a bad season and the tour looked pretty daunting. But we won five and drew one of our six lead-up matches and were confident ahead of the single Test in Jo’burg.
Standing in the tunnel before the Test, I looked at the Springboks and they had huge forwards. Guys like their captain, Piet Greyling, Jan Ellis and John Williams were seriously big men and when you looked at their front row, which consisted of Niek Bezuidenhout, Piston van Wyk and Sakkie Sauermann, I thought to myself: “Christ, what’s going to happen here?”
I turned to our full-back, Sam Doble, and said: “It’s a big day today,” and then it was out through the tunnel and into the sunlight with 100,000 rugby mad South Africans packed into Ellis Park. The roar went up as the Springboks emerged and you knew that this match was for real.
We toughed it out, though, and at half-time we were leading something like 9-6. We were doing all right and then suddenly Alan Morley cut in off his wing, hit a perfect 45-degree angle and scored. We knew we had a real chance then, but they responded by cutting up rough.
Aluminium stud met skull and Stack Stevens, our loose head prop, had to go off with a horrible wound in his head. There were no replacements then so I moved to loosehead while John Watkins, our Gloucester flanker who was 14 stone wet through, filled in at tighthead.
I remember packing down for our next scrum, thinking: “It ain’t ever going to be worse than this!” We were 6,000 feet above sea level, 12,000 miles from home, in our own half, with a South African referee, in a seven-man pack, with no replacements and half-an-hour to go.
John Pullin nodded and I knew what had to be done. That was the signal to start a roughhouse and I had to make sure my opposite number understood we were playing on our terms. And he did. We did what we had to do, he was nice and quiet after that and we got through. There were no citing officers to put you on report, it was just a jungle out there and we won.
John wasn’t a captain who shouted or thumped the table, but he’d say to us things like: “Just remember, when you’re coming off the field make sure there’s nothing you regret that you could have done but didn’t.” We all helped each other and it was a great victory.
It didn’t dawn on us that we’d made history at the time, but 40 years on people like to talk about that game and I still see a lot of those lads now. We’re all still great mates.
ENGLAND’S OTHER 1972 TOUR RESULTS
17 May, Durban: Natal 0 England 19
20 May, Cape Town: Western Province 6 England 9
22 May, Cape Town: SA Federation XV 6 England 11
24 May, Port Elizabeth: SAARB Leopards 3 England 36
27 May, Pretoria: Northern Transvaal 13 England 13
30 May, Kimberley: Griqualand West 21 England 60
During a June month when England's players strived unsuccessfully to achieve victory in South Africa, it is an opportune time to look back 40 years and highlight an historic victory for the men wearing the Red Rose of England, and especially so in the knowledge that one of them was a Pirate!
The rugby achievements of Claude Brian 'Stack' Stevens provide an admirable record, but more of that later, as it was the day after his 31st birthday on the 3rd June, 1972, that England took on the mighty 'Springboks' at Ellis Park, Johannesburg.
In front of a capacity 77,400 crowd, few gave John Elders's side a tuppence for their chances, remembering that just a few months earlier England had lost all four championship matches for the first time.
The test match was the last for England in a seven-match itinerary, and they had actually played very well on their short tour. Indeed, if they could win then they would return home undefeated.
England did well in the set scrum, where the front-row of 'Stack', John Pullin and Mike Burton stood up to everything.
Peter Larter and Chris Ralston also achieved parity at the line-out, and the back-row, with No. 8 Andy Ripley particularly effective, hunted and harassed tirelessly. Half-backs Jan Webster and Alan Old kicked cleverly, the backs tackled well and full-back Sam Doble was in top form.
Of interest, all of England points went to Doble (four penalties and a conversion) and wing Alan Morley (try), who were both previously uncapped, as England emerged 18-9 victors. It meant that England had succeeded where Scotland, Ireland and Wales had failed in the past. Skipper Pullin commented: "If we'd played as well as this in the last season, we might have won the Five Nations Championship."
To play seven matches in 24 days without defeat and score 166 points to 58 in the varying conditions of South Africa was quite some feat, with pride duly restored as the Red Rose bloomed brightly on the high and low veld.
The England side that created history with their first tour win in South Africa, and with the biggest victory margin in the history of England-South Africa tests since 1906, was as follows: S. Doble, P. Knight, P. Preece, J. Janion, A. Morley, A. Old, J. Webster, A. Ripley, A. Neary, J. Watkins, C. Ralston, P. Larter, M. Burton, J. Pullin (capt), C. B. Stevens.
England tasted success again in South Africa in 1994, winning 32-15 in Pretoria, and in 2000 they beat the Springboks 27-22 in Bloemfontein.
Now, back to Stack's list of rugby achievements, which were considerable. Well, after playing for our Mounts Bay Colts side at the age of 16, he later progressed to the reserves and then the Chiefs, and in 1959 he won the first of his 83 caps for Cornwall.
During the 1968 season Stack played in a number of England trials, culminating with his first international cap, which was against South Africa at Twickenham in December, 1969.
Becoming a British Lion in 1971 on the tour to New Zealand was a highlight, as was the tour to South Africa in 1972, when he also had the honour of skippering England when Griqualand West were beaten 60 points to 21.
In 1973, and there's a photograph on display in the club's lounge that records the occasion (!), Stack was a try-scorer for England when they beat the All Blacks 16-10 at Eden Park, Auckland. Hey, I have to admit that whenever welcoming new Kiwi staff members or visitors to our 'Westholme' clubhouse the opportunity is always taken to proudly show them the said photograph, as it truly was a special moment.
Stack was capped 25 times for England to the mid-70s, and he later became an England selector. Also a 'Barbarian', his one major regret during his playing career was having to decline an invitation to tour with the British Lions to South Africa in 1974.
In conclusion, we must not forget that Stack still managed to play over 500 games for the Pirates, and it really was a privilege to on occasions play in the same team as him, including our first ever Cornwall KO Cup win in 1976.
Stack and his wife Jane regularly support the Pirates, whilst sons Sam and John have enjoyed their rugby development through our youth section.
As a graduate of Leedstown School, farmer Stack's path to the top was certainly not easy, but through his commitment and qualities displayed as a truly world-class loose-head prop forward, he fully deserved every honour that came his way.