The tour included three internationals and 16 tour matches. The side came under the captaincy of W.E. (Bill) Maclagan and consisted of Scottish and English players.
1981 British touring team to SA
Pictures of the 1981 British touring side van be seen above.
The team was considered a strong one with eight members who have played international rugby; four having represented the South of England; two having played for Oxford; six that were Cambridge ‘Blues’.
Players who stood out in the touring group were:
· Mitchell a wonderfully accurate fly-kicking fullback;
· R.L. Aston a strong straight running centre who scored 30 of the 89 tries on tour was later described as one of the finest centres that have visited South Africa. His brother Ferdie Aston played centre for South Africa against the next British tourists in 1896;
· P.R. Clauss was an exceedingly fast wing-threequarter who was in later years quoted in newspapers articles about this tour. He described the tour as ‘champagne and travel’;
· ‘Baby’ Hancock was a forward so big that he had trouble fitting into the scrum;
· Johnny Hammond who brought the next team to South Africa in 1896 also stood out as player.
The South Africans were surprised by the physical size of British backline players like Maclagan (wing), Aston (centre), W. Wotherspoon and Rotheiham (halfbacks) who was over 6 feet tall and weighed between 200 and 210 pounds (90 to 95 kg). Quite heavy considering that international backline players in the nineteen seventies weighed between 72 and 82 kg.
Rugby was in its infancy in South Africa and this British side proved too strong for the hosts. The strength of the hosts was forward play and the South Africans found the dribbling skills of the British forwards and the passing skills of the touring threequarters to much too contain.
Barry Heatlie who would captain South Africa in the next series against the British tourist in 1896 described the British backs as scintillating.
About the forwards Barry Heatlie wrote: ‘We had no two forwards of the calibre of Judy Macmillan and W.E. Bronet –two of the best I ever saw- but I consider that our best South African pack was superior to the best eight our opponents could field.’
South Africa put up some solid performances in the three test matches. The British tourists won the first test in the first half with two well worked tries and were able to hold the South Africans -who had a good share of the territory- from scoring in the second half.
The Springbok team who played in South Africa's first ever test match. The Captain was Herbert Castens who incidentally was also South Africa's first cricket captain.
In the second test the tourist won with a drop goal which was kicked by fullback Mitchell after claiming a fair catch on the side-line just inside the South African half. The South Africans played like men possessed but the tourists defence held them out.
The third test played on the ‘softer’ well-grassed Newlands saw the tourist at their best. Valiant defence work by the South Africans kept the score sheet blank up to half time. Late in the second half -when it looked like it was going to be a draw- the British tourist scored two tries (Maclagan and Aston) for a well-deserved victory.
The South African team was selected by authorities at the venue where the internationals were played namely Port Elizabeth, Kimberley and Cape Town. Only five South Africans as a consequence played in all three internationals namely Ben Duff, JT (Chubb) Vigne, Alf Richards, Marthinus Versfeld and Japie Louw. South Africa also had a different captain in each test match; Herbert Castens in the 1st test; RC (Bob) Snedden 2nd test; Alf Richards 3rd test. The sacking of Snedden for the last test was later described as a major mistake.
In the end it was the selection policy to some extent but mostly the technical skills of the tourist that made the difference and which enabled them to establish superiority. Well-timed passing skills by the backs and the speed and dribbling ability of the forwards as well as the tactic of wheeling the scrum to counter the South Africans strength upfront were features of their play.
British test teams and results of the 1891 series
Clauss had the following to say about the South African players: ‘We felt that the material and enthusiasm were there and were confident that the lessons we tried to impart in science and teamwork would bear fruit in the future.’
This tour also saw the birth of the Currie Cup. The fourth touring match was against Griqualand West in Kimberley. The tourists after travelling two nights and a day by train to Kimberley were shocked to learn that they will be playing on a dirt pitch with no grass on it. One player called it ‘a wretched pavement’.
Griqualand West –used to the ‘wretched pavement’- gave them a torrid time and lost by a narrow margin (one try and a penalty). It was on the strength of this performance that Griqualand West were handed a trophy by Sir Donald Currie given to the team who came up with the best performance against the touring team.
Sir Donald Currie, British chairman of a flourishing shipping line who entrusted Griqualand West with a cup for putting up the best performance against the touring team.
The British team won all its matches scoring 89 tries and conceding only one try scored by ‘Hasie’ Versfeld (brother of Loftus after which the Northern Transvaal stadium was named) playing for Cape Clubs in the first match of the tour.
The South African team that played against the 1891 tourist in Kimberley can be seen in the picture above.