Northern Transvaal, always outstandingly competitive in their previous six matches against the British and Irish Lions (B&I Lions), posted their second win against a Lions side when they beat the 1997 tourists, under captain Martin Johnson, just a week before the first test.
It was the last time that South Africa’s leading rugby province, measured by Currie Cup wins since their establishment in 1938, played as Northern Transvaal against a major touring country. Their name changed to the Bulls (Super Rugby) and the Blue Bulls (other rugby) in October 1997.
The convincing Lions win was built on the players’ confidence instilled by their inspirational captain, Adriaan Richter, who ended his career with 80 captaincies for Northern Transvaal and Blue Bulls teams, a feat only beaten by the other Light Blues legends Naas Botha (128) and Thys Lourens (82).
But confidence wasn’t all that was needed, and the necessary spark to the Northern Transvaal victory was provided by a relative newcomer to provincial rugby, Casper Steyn.
As left wing on the day, the versatile Steyn (who was also an excellent fullback) that day scored 20 of the Light Blues’ points in their 35-30 win over the visiting British Lions.
The goalkicking left winger’s 20 points came through a try, three conversions and three penalties, as the Bulls outscored the Lions by four tries to three in their 35-30 win after leading 18-7 at halftime.
The other Northern Transvaal points against the Lions were scored by Springboks Danie van Schalkwyk (two tries) and Richter, the Bulls captain who also captained the Springboks in the 1995 World Cup tournament against Romania.
It was a good Northern Transvaal side, with Springboks in Richter, Danie van Schalkwyk (who would play in the tests against the Lions), loose forward Schutte Bekker and hooker Henry Tromp. Replacement Grant Esterhuizen became a Bok three years later and replacement Matthew Proudfoot, who had played for Scotland, was the Springboks’ forward coach at the winning World Cup in 2019 (now in the same role with England).
▪ Casper Steyn’s exploits set a platform for Northern Transvaal coach Eugene van Wyk with Chris Buitendach as his assistant to win the 1998 Currie Cup.
▪ The 1997 loss was the first Lions defeat to a South African province for 29 years, spanning the 1974 and 1980 tours following the Lions’ 6-14 loss to Transvaal in 1968. It was also the Lions’ first defeat to a South African provincial team in the professional era.
Since that 1997 Northern Transvaal win in June 1997, the Lions showed their mettle and are yet to lose to a South African team outside of the tests after a total of 16 matches on the remainder of the 1997 tour and the 2009 tour.
The 1997 win was the second time that the Light Blues had beaten the Lions. In 1962 they convincingly beat Arthur Smith’s tourists 14-6, laden with the Lions’ best in an acrimonious battle the week before the first test.
The Bulls also came very close in 1968, losing 19-22 to Tom Kiernan’s Lions who were defeated only once, by Transvaal, outside of the tests.
Northern Transvaal team –
Graeme Bouwer, Wynand Louw, Johan Schütte, Danie van Schalkwyk, Casper Steyn Roland de Marigny, Conrad Breytenbach, Adriaan Richter (capt.), Schutte Bekker, Nicky van der Walt, Derrick Badenhorst, Derrick Grobbelaar, Piet Boer, Henry Tromp, Lourens Campher. Replacements: Jaco Taljaard, Grant Esterhuizen, Ralf Schröder, Gerhard Laufs, Matthew Proudfoot, Jannie Brooks.