From The Vaults

11 March 2024
Springbok nightmare at Twickenham

As professionalism in rugby union bedded down in the late 1990s, it became customary for the three Southern Hemisphere powers to send their teams over to the United Kingdom and France to play a series of three or four test matches in the months leading up to Christmas.

At full strength the touring teams sent by Australia, New Zealand and South Africa were very hard to beat despite home advantage for their opponents, but some years the selectors of the three countries chose to rest some of their stars and blood less experienced players in the cauldron of the great rugby grounds of the Northern Hemisphere.

France v South Africa

In the autumn of 2002, the Springbok selectors brought over an initial squad of 26 players under the captaincy of Corne Krige, the Western Province wing forward. Their itinerary comprised three test matches starting with France on Saturday November 9th. They blooded five new caps in their 23-man squad, two of whom were to become mainstays of their side for many years, the centre Jean De Villiers and the second row forward Bakkies Botha, but their lack of genuine international experience told in their first match. The French team contained five players who had won at least 50 caps and, although the Springboks held on until the middle of the second half, the power of the French pack allied to backline flair proved decisive in the final twenty minutes leading to a 30-10 French victory.

A week later the Springboks ran out at Murrayfield to face a competitive if relatively inexperienced Scottish side. It was a match the Springboks were expected to win but, primarily due to injuries sustained against France, their team included four more new caps including a rookie front row. The score was 6-6 at half-time but then the Scots unexpectedly took control and ran out comfortable winners by 21-6, scoring the only two tries of the game.

It was a demoralised Springbok squad in some disarray that arrived at Twickenham on Saturday November 23rd for the final test of their tour against a confident England side under Martin Johnson's captaincy. Although they included only one new cap among the replacements, the Blue Bulls scrum half Norman Jordaan, the combined cap total in their starting line-up was only 234 while the England team mustered 515, of whom only two players had won less than ten caps.

The scale of the challenge confronting the Springboks at the end of their tour was all too clear. England had already beaten New Zealand and Australia in successive weeks and their full 22-man line-up for this match included fifteen players who would appear in the World Cup Final in Sydney a year later.

England v South Africa

It was apparent from the outset that England had the upper hand. This was compounded with England leading 8-0 when the giant 6ft 5in Springbok second row forward Jannes Labuschagne was sent off in the 22nd minute of the first half for an exceptionally careless late shoulder charge on Jonny Wilkinson. Only the sixth Springbok player to have been sent off in an international, the 26-year old would never be picked to play for the Springboks at any level again. England registered a further ten points with the Springbok fly half, Andre Pretorius kicking a solitary penalty goal, leaving the score at the break 18-3 in England's favour.

The second half was a rout with 15-man England scoring five converted tries to nil which produced a record victory for England over the Springboks of 53-3. Wilkinson was withdrawn early in the second half and the kicking duties were then shared between Matt Dawson and two of the substitutes, scrum half Andy Gomersall and full back Tim Stimpson. This led to a total of six successful conversions being shared between four different players, a most unusual if not unique occurrence in international rugby.

In a tumultuous match the English tries in the second half included a penalty try when the Springbok full back Werner Greeff almost decapitated the Bristol winger Phil Christophers as he headed for the tryline. This encapsulated the aggressive and at times illegal approach of the Springboks which left pundits unanimous that this was a woeful display by the Springboks on almost every level. The Times encapsulated the general feeling in its match summary headed "Brutal tactics were admission of weakness and lack of confidence" two days later:

"No one who witnessed the game can fail to have seen the array of late tackles, shoulder barges, punches and stamps that littered the game - fouling it for spectators and turning it into a textbook example of how not to play international rugby."

More than twenty years later the record winning margin of 50 points between these two countries remains, as does the reputation of the match itself as being one of the most contentious internationals ever played at Twickenham.


  • 112 Years of Springbok Rugby 1891-2003 - Paul Dobson (South African Rugby Union 2003)
  • International Rugby Yearbook 2003-2004 - Cleary & Griffiths (Collins Willow 2004)
  • South African Rugby Annual 2003 - Andy Colquhoun (SA Rugby Ltd 2003)
  • Newspaper reports in the Sunday Telegraph ; Sunday Times; Observer; and The Times
  • Scrapbooks and match spreadsheets in World Rugby Museum and Richard Steele Collections

About the Author

A professional musician and arts administrator, Richard Steele has been on the committee of the World Rugby Museum at Twickenham since 2005 and is the co-author of the RFU's 150th anniversary book England Rugby 150 Years.