In 1938 the British Lions visited South Africa to take on the team generally recognised as the best in the world and led by legendary scrum-half Danie Craven for the three match series. The task awaiting the Lions was huge and to their eternal credit they recovered after losing the first two Tests to secure victory in the third, a match recognised at the time as the finest played in South Africa.
Seventy years may have passed but the names of Craven, Gerry Brand, Fred Turner, Flappie Lochner, Tony Harris, the brothers ‘Boy’ and ‘Fanie’ Louw, Ferdie Bergh and Jan Lotz are still revered in South African rugby circles. And the Lions? Under strength due to the absence of several leading players unable to afford the luxury of six months overseas travel the party still included players of the calibre of Vivian Jenkins, Charles Grieve, Bill Clement and Harry McKibbin – both destined for high office with their respective unions – Haydn Tanner, Bunner Travers, George Dancer, Bob Alexander and the enigma that was Blair Mayne, who won four DSOs, the Croix de Guerre and the Legion d’ honneur in the Second World War which followed the tour.
Memorable as events on the playing field may have been the 1938 tourists saw much which helps make their story one of the most interesting in the long history of Lions’ rugby. The extended journeys by sea and the thousands of miles by train which took the visitors the length and breadth of the country make touring in the twenty first century seem nothing more than a brief interlude – all subsequent tours to South Africa would involve the aeroplane.
Then there was the social side of touring – the receptions, parties, official dinners and much else besides. The 1938 tourists laid witness to much more than their counterparts in the era of a professional sport can ever expect. Theirs was more an adventure than a sporting extravaganza in which success or failure is determined solely by the winning or losing of a Test series.
The book is called 'Last of the Blue Lions' because on the next tour – in 1948 – the Lions switched from blue jerseys to the famous red they still wear.
Independent on Sunday
...very enjoyable ... a poignant look at an era that was about to end forever. They deserve this belated salute.