Remembering a controversial tour that took in apartheid South Africa

Jim Renwick, seen here at Mansfield Park, starred for the British Lions in 1980
Jim Renwick, seen here at Mansfield Park, starred for the British Lions in 1980
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“The only trouble with the Lions tours is they interfere with the Common-Riding.”

That is the view of 61-year-old Jim Renwick as he reflected on his time with the British and Irish Lions during the tour to South Africa in 1980.

And he joked about trying to get Hawick’s latest Lion, Stuart Hogg, time off to enjoy the local celebrations.

He said: “They’ll need to get the dates sorted. I said to Andy Irvine, ‘You’ll let Stuart fly home for the Common-Riding and have a couple of days off and then fly him back out again’. ‘Aye, that’ll be right,’ he said.”

It was third time lucky for Jim in terms of the Lions selection. After missing out in 1974 and 77 on the tours to South Africa and New Zealand respectively, at the age of 28 he was given the nod.

However, the tour wasn’t without its controversy as the world waged a war against the South African apartheid regime.

Jim said: “I remember getting a letter from Sir David Steel saying I should maybe think about not going.

“There were a few boys didn’t make themselves available.

“But we went and I don’t think we did anything wrong. We played rugby and we saw the country. We weren’t happy with what went on in South Africa with the apartheid. But do you sort it by putting them in isolation? It was a tough one.

“You got used to it but you were never comfortable with it. How black folk couldn’t go here and they couldn’t do this.”

There were 30 players in the Lions squad as well as a manager [Syd Millar], coach [Noel Murphy] and doctor [Jack Matthews]. And they picked up a bag man when they arrived in South Africa.

However, Jim believes it was the absence of a backs coach that proved crucial as the Lions ultimately lost 4-1.

He said: “We should’ve had a backs coach because we won up front but we didn’t win the Tests.

“Hawick used to win up front as well, but when you win up front you’ve got to use the ball you win and not waste it.

“If we’d had a backs coach I think it would’ve been different. When you come all together, if it’s the Irish half-backs or the Welsh half-backs, they want to do their thing so you end up doing a bit of everybody’s and you don’t do what you should be doing.”

On that tour the Lions called up an amazing eight players as replacements due to injuries.

And it was an injury to Gareth Davies that gave Jim, who was joined on the tour by fellow Greens star Alan Tomes, his one and only Test appearance from the bench, although it has a story behind it.

Jim explained: “ It was a beautiful day and I was sitting sun-bathing. I had my shirt off and Gareth went down injured. I wondered who was covering stand-off and [Syd] Miller said that it was me and to get on. I had to get on but I couldn’t find my boots, they were all kicked under the chairs and it took me ten minutes to get on.

“After the game the committee called a meeting and that was the start of everybody being stripped, taped and ready to go on.”

While the Tests may have been slightly disappointing from Jim’s point of view, he managed to play in nine games and came off the bench in three. He also featured in a warm-up match before the last Test in the South African Barbarians side against the Junior Springboks.

“I was playing quite well early on in the Tour but then I kind of fell away a bit,” he said. “I didn’t miss a training session, me or Toomba [Alan Tomes].”

And while he enjoyed the rugby, he also enjoyed seeing South Africa.

Jim, who was on the entertainment committee, said: “We decided when we went that we weren’t going to get down about things. Whether we were picked or not
we would just get on with it
and that was the attitude we
had.

“We had a ball. If they needed folk to go out then we put our hands up. We ended up driving a train down the line. It was good for us because we just decided to get on with it.”