South Africa v the Lions - Why becoming a team is so crucial

IT COULD hardly be any more different to his experience of more than 20 years ago but - for British and Irish Lions legend John Bentley - many things still remain the same as today’s tourists prepare to face South Africa.

28 Jun 1997:  John Bentley of the British Lions celebrates victory in the second test match against South Africa at Kings Park in Durban, South Africa. The British Lions won 15-18 and secured the series win. Picture: Alex Livesey /Allsport
28 Jun 1997: John Bentley of the British Lions celebrates victory in the second test match against South Africa at Kings Park in Durban, South Africa. The British Lions won 15-18 and secured the series win. Picture: Alex Livesey /Allsport

Warren Gatland’s side take on the Springboks in the first Test in Cape Town this evening looking to win a series there for the first time since 1997.

Back then, there were 50,000 supporters watching on in a febrile atmosphere when the Lions won the opener and set up an historic success.

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Tonight, with Covid still causing such issues in the Rainbow Nation, there will be no spectators but the challenge will be just as formidable.

British Lions wing John Bentley attempts to break through the tackles of South Africa's Os du Randt (L) Pieter Rossouw (C) and Percival Montegomery. Picture: Mike Hutchings

Bentley, the powerful winger who made such a name for himself in ’97 on the first tour after the end of apartheid in South Africa, is looking forward to seeing how Gatland’s side adapt having lost last week against South Africa A at the same venue.

“They did get beat last week, which on a tour I don’t necessarily think is a bad thing, suffering a blow like that,” the former Rotherham and dual-code England international told The Yorkshire Post.

“We lost the fourth game of the tour in ’97 and suddenly - if you were a bit ahead of yourself - you’re soon back down to earth.

“It allows you to focus on the fundamentals.

“A couple of things that will be important is now we’re playing all three games at sea level in Cape Town, which will benefit the Lions. They will also know that the South Africans haven’t played for two years as a team and they have been smashed by Covid: a lot of their players have had it.

“A lot of it in that sense is plus, plus, plus for the Lions going into Saturday. One of the key ingredients of a successful tour is becoming a team. And that’s just not on the field. It’s probably more important off it.

“It will have been challenging with the current situation - in a bubble, not allowed to leave the hotel - but it’s even more important now that they have become a team.

“This first Test will be the big examination of them as if a tour is going to split, this is when it happens: building up to the opener.

“I’m hoping it won’t be the case and he (Gatland) has thrown some surprises in there.”

With legendary captain Alun Wyn Jones at lock barely four weeks after dislocating his shoulder, the Lions have a big psychological boost on their side.

Yorkshireman Bentley, 54, added: “It’s crazy he’s managed that and got back last week but it’s good. The way he manages the referee is very important. He’s very similar to Sam Warburton in that regard.

“Gatland’s left out Josh Adams and picked the South African lad Duhan van der Merwe which surprised me a little bit. He’s a big lump and will get plenty of attention from the South Africans. The other surprise is at No8 where they’ve picked Jack Conan instead of Taulupe Faletau.

“Selection is important here as ultimately they have to win this game. It’s going to be tougher than anything they’ve encountered so far but it is so important to win the first Test.

“But I’m really not too sure if they will or not and the centres they have picked means they haven’t got a creator as such in midfield.”

In ‘97, Bentley was a surprise selection by Ian McGeechan, having returned to union with Newcastle Falcons just a year earlier following a successful league career with Leeds and Halifax, which also saw him represent England at the 1995 World Cup.

But he scored one of the greatest tries in Lions history for the midweek side against Gauteng Lions to help force his way onto the bench for the first Test win.

The Dewsbury-born star started instead of Wales’ Ieuan Evans for the second Test, the famous 18-15 victory in Durban which sealed the Lions first series win in South Africa since 1974.

Bentley also played in the third Test in Johannesburg as the Lions lost out 35-16. He recalled: “I never expected to get picked for the Lions. It was never on my radar when I came back from league to union in September 1996.

“But being considered to be the right type of player, in the right place at the right time, having got a phone call from (tour manager) Fran Cotton, I suddenly found myself on the tour.

“When I arrived at Weybridge on May 11, 1997, I didn’t really think we’d got a chance; we were going to the back road of the current world champions. Everybody had written us off.

“But having spent the first week together attempting to become a team I decided that, having got on that plane, that we had a chance of winning that series.

“I really felt we had a chance because it felt good, everyone had put their differences to one side - we agreed to do that - and it was an amazing experience.

“As my wife always says, ‘you went on one tour, got one try and got one speech, get over yourself!’

“But it was a great time. Unfortunately, I don’t think that kind of trip will ever be repeated again.

“The game had just turned professional. There was still a bit of a drinking culture like there is with rugby - although that didn’t interfere with the preparations - and we went on and did the job.”

Bentley added: “There were lads who went on many other tours, bigger experiences, perhaps bigger journeys like World Cups, who still look back at ‘97 - Johnno (Martin Johnson, (Lawrence) Dallaglio, (Jeremy) Guscott, (Matt) Dawson, Will Greenwood - being the greatest tour and experience.

“It was a great experience and I always remember McGeechan addressing us at the second Test and he sat us in the room and we were about to have the biggest game of our lives.

“He didn’t speak much about the rugby. He spoke a little as he’d played there himself in ‘74 and knew how brutal it’d be.

“But he knew there’d be occasions during the game where there’d be people you’d be stood alongside who you’d be sat alongside now and you wouldn’t need to speak to them. There’d just be a look.

“He said you might not see them for 30 years and then the time you do - across the room or across the street - there’d be just a look again and a look to say you are special.

“And he was right. Whenever we do see each other now it is like that,

“We all had a huge experience on that ‘97 tour.”