When five Ulster players helped the Lions stun South Africa

South Africa will clash with the British and Irish Lions this evening (5pm) in Cape Town to decide the 2021 test series after the Boks squared the best of three battle at 1-1 with a 27-9 victory last weekend.

Saturday, 7th August 2021, 11:00 am
The Irish Lions who featured in the 1938 tour to South Africa

One of the Lions greatest victories since their inception in 1888 came in the third and final test against South Africa on the 1938 tour.

The 21-16 win at Newlands Stadium, Cape Town was even more remarkable as the tourists came from 13-3 down at half time in the days when a try was only worth three points.

Five Ulster players including tour captain Sammy Walker started the game, it remains the record representation in a single Lions test match for the province.

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Flanker Robert Alexander born in Belfast had won one Ireland cricket cap playing against Scotland in 1932 but it was with the oval ball he would excel.

After leaving Royal Belfast Academical Institution (RBAI) Alexander played his club rugby at Queen’s University before moving to North.

Alexander was part of the Ulster side that drew 3-3 with New Zealand at Ravenhill in November 1935 and has the distinction of being the only member of the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) to have played for the Lions.

The other three Ulster players that played in the final test against South Africa all came through the ranks at Queen’s.

Blair Mayne, George Cromey and Harry McKibbin were part of the student side that dominated rugby in the late 1930’s.

Queen’s won two Ulster Senior Cups and the Bateman Cup (All Ireland Cup) and the students went through the 1936/7 season undefeated.

Mayne won the Irish Universities Heavyweight boxing championship in 1936 and was beaten in the final of the British Universities championship losing to a Boer fighting out of Liverpool University Karl Luntz on points.

Mayne would play in all three tests against the Springboks in 1938 but it was his off-field antics that have gone down in Lions folklore.

Cromey was ordained a presbyterian minister the day before the Lions touring party left Southampton aboard the Stirling Castle liner bound for South Africa.

McKibbin was captain of the RBAI team that won the Schools’ Cup in 1934, he made his international debut in Ireland’s last match before the 1938 Lions tour and despite having only one cap was picked for South Africa, the centre was the only back to play in all three test matches.

The third test against South Africa on 10th September 1938 at Newlands Stadium, Cape Town was to be the Lions last match for 12 years, a year later the world would go to war for a second time.

It was also the last time the Lions wore blue shirts on the international stage, for the 1950 tour of New Zealand and Australia red shirts were adapted.

South Africa were hailed as the unofficial world champions (the first rugby world cup was still 49 years away) after beating the All Blacks in New Zealand and taking a 2-0 series win over Australia a year before the Lions arrived.

Despite Mayne’s efforts in the first test in Johannesburg which won the Newtonards native rave reviews from the South African journalists the Springboks prevailed 26-12.

South Africa clinched the series by winning the second test 19-3 at the Crusaders Ground in Port Elizabeth, with temperatures reaching 93 degrees in the shade the Lions unsurprisingly wilted in the heat in a game that was dubbed the ‘tropical test.’

While the series was over by the time the teams got to Cape Town, there was still plenty at stake.

The Springboks had a fiercely proud record at the Cape Town ground losing only twice in 47 years and giving birth to the South African mantra ‘We never lose at Newlands.’

The Lions were trying to win a test on South African soil for the first time in 28 years.

Tommy Smyth a Belfast born doctor who played his club rugby for Malone and Newport captained the Lions to an 8-3 win in the second test in 1910.

In the seven tests since the Lions had lost six and drew the other.

After a gruelling 21 game schedule the Lions arrived at Newlands with a lengthy injury list. Walker was moved from his customary position of prop into the second row where he packed down with Mayne. Alexander was at flanker, Cromey at out half and McKibbin started at inside centre. As well as the five Ulster men another three other Ireland internationals were in the Lions side.

Clontarf scrum half George Morgan partnered Cromey at half back, Dublin University’s Charles Vessey Boyle was on the wing while Wanderers’ prop Charles Graves was in the front row.

Legendary South African captain Danie Craven won the toss with his lucky 10 schilling coin that was given to him by the mayor of Johannesburg just before the test series kicked off.

Craven considered one of the best dive passing scrum halves ever, won 16 Springboks caps and when he was appointed coach of South Africa in 1949 the team had a 74% win rate during his seven years in charge.

Craven, on the advice of the Newlands groundsman, elected to play with the strong wind in the first half after being assured it would die down in the second period and be of no advantage to the Lions.

Craven’s decision looked inspired as the home team when into the interval with a 13-3 lead.

Tries from Ferdy Turner, Johnny Bester and Jan Lotz plus two conversions from Turner gave South Africa a healthy 10-point lead at the break, the Lions sole reply came from a try by Llanelli’s Elvet Jones.

However, the groundsman got his meteorology forecast wrong and the wind remained as strong in the second half.

Mayne described by the watching press core as having the match of his life rallied the Lions pack and as the tourist’s forwards started to dominate their Springbok opponents, they produced a remarkable comeback in the second half.

The aptly named Bedford and England prop Beef (Gerald) Dancer started the Lions fightback with a try which McKibbin converted.

The Queen’s centre reduced the Springboks lead to two points with a penalty.

Alexander was next to cross the white for the tourists, it was his sixth try of the tour making him the leading scorer among the forwards.

The flanker had only scored one try for Ireland while winning 11 caps. Alexander’s try gave the Lions a slender one-point lead.

A Turner penalty put the hosts back in front, full back Charles Grieve born in the Philippines, educated in England and playing his international rugby for Scotland landed the last ever four-point drop goal in South Africa to restore the Lions lead.

The value of the drop goal was reduced from four points to three in 1948.

The kick was disputed, but several South African players sportingly told the officials it had gone through the posts and the score stood.

Glasgow Academicals flanker Laurie Duff got another try to put the Lions 21-16 in front.

The drama was not finished there, South Africa won a scrum and the referee informed both sets of players it would be the last passage of the game. Craven made a sniping blind side break to release Bester, he fed Dai Williams and the winger went over for a try which if converted would earn South Africa a draw.

However, the South African referee Nic Pretorius adjudged Bester’s pass was forward, and the Lions became only the third team in nearly half a century to beat the Springboks at Newlands.

Walker was carried off the pitch on the shoulders of fans. The 21-16 victory ended a losing streak of six test matches for the Lions.

The 21 points scored by the Lions was their highest tally in their 36-test history surpassing the 17 points scored against in the second test against South Africa in 1896 and they scored 17 points in both the first and second test against Australia in 1904.

It was only the second time the Lions had scored four tries test match the previous occasion was the third test against Australia 24 years earlier.

Walker never played international again after the tour of South Africa.

The four Queen’s players took Ireland to the brink of a Triple Crown in 1939 which would have been just the third in the country’s history.

After wins over Scotland and England, Wales came to Ravenhill and won 7-0 in the last game of the championship (France were suspended in 1932 for allegations of professionalism).

That was to be the last time Alexander, Cromey, Mayne and McKibbin would play international rugby.

All four would serve in the second world war.

Alexander reached the rank of captain in the 2nd Inniskilling Fusiliers, he was killed in action leading an attack Simento River in Sicily on 19th July 1943.

He is buried n Section III, Row F, Grave 1 of Catania War Cemetery, Sicily.

Cromey was a chaplain in the RAF serving in Hereford, the Orkneys and Belgium.

Mayne would be come one of the most decorated British soldiers in the war, after fighting in Lebanon and Syria with 11th Scottish Commando he would join the newly formed Special Air Service (SAS) seeing action in North Africa, Italy, France and Germany.

Mayne was a awarded a Distinguished Service Order with three bars and is considered the bravest man never to win the Victoria Cross.

McKibbin was in the Royal Artillery Regiment , he was evacuated from Dunkirk in 1941 and fought in the jungles of Burma later in the conflict.

By the end of the war, he’d reached the rank of major, he managed the Lions of the 1962 tour of South Africa.

McKibbin had the honour of being IRFU president during its centenary season in 1974/5.