From The Vaults

16 May 2022
The Tour from Hell

When rugby union embraced professionalism at the end of the 1995 Rugby World Cup in South Africa, a sea change took place in the nature and number of contacts and matches for players, clubs and international teams.

Entrepreneurs started to invest in clubs in the UK and France and players migrated to Europe to play their club rugby as professionals. International sides started to tour the UK each autumn and spectators had matches to watch both live and on television.

In the autumn of 1997 Australia, New Zealand and South Africa played a combined total of 11 tests in the UK and France, and Argentina also played Italy and France. Clive Woodward's international coaching career started with a 15-all draw against Australia in November followed by defeats to the All Blacks at Old Trafford and the Springboks at Twickenham, before a thrilling 26-all draw in a second test against the All Blacks back at Twickenham. New players were blooded, notably future British and Irish Lions Matt Perry and Will Greenwood.

The 1998 Five Nations tournament opened with defeat to France in Paris but an overwhelming 60-26 victory over Wales at Twickenham steadied the ship. The Murrayfield hurdle was safely negotiated, and Ireland were convincingly beaten at Twickenham leaving England as runners-up to a rampant France on their way to a second successive Grand Slam. Sixteen tries had been scored in the four matches and, against Ireland, a young Jonny Wilkinson had won his first cap as a replacement on the wing in the final five minutes.

At the conclusion of the season, an England party was chosen to tour the southern hemisphere. There were seven matches scheduled including tests against Australia, South Africa and two against the All Blacks. If a full-strength tour party could have been chosen, it would still have been a formidable assignment. The unavailability of numerous first-choice players, such as captain Lawrence Dallaglio, Jeremy Guscott, Jason Leonard and Martin Johnson, meant that Woodward picked no less than 17 uncapped players in an inexperienced tour party of 37 players. The captain was scrum half Matt Dawson supported by fellow British and Irish Lions Tim Stimpson, Nick Beal, Austin Healey, Graham Rowntree and Ben Clarke.

The opening test match was to be played in Australia and the Australian Rugby Union was critical when the English tour party was announced. Chairman Dick McGruther suspected that the English clubs were applying pressure on their players not to undertake such an arduous tour:

"It's the greatest English sell-out since Anzac Day. I think the Rugby Football Union has treated the southern hemisphere with a degree of contempt. It would be hard to prove, but it seems that with this touring party being decimated, that the employers are applying some pressure to these players."

Problems dogged the touring party from the outset. For the test at Suncorp Stadium in Brisbane, England picked four new caps and had to add a fifth, the uncapped Gloucester scrum half Scott Benton, when Dawson was ruled out by a training injury. Jonny Wilkinson was making his first start at fly half and two more new caps entered the field as substitutes during the match. The Wallabies included the entire back line and thirteen of the team that would go on to win the World Cup in Cardiff eighteen months later. Unsurprisingly England was totally unable to match the Wallabies, who led 33-0 at half-time and went on to win by their biggest ever winning margin 76-0. The Australian backs scored ten of the 11 tries, including three each for winger Ben Tune and fly half Steve Larkham. It remains the largest English defeat in their 150-year history and four of the new caps never played in a test match for England again.

The chastened tour party moved on to New Zealand where they were beaten 18-10 by New Zealand 'A' and 50-32 by New Zealand Rugby Academy before facing the might of the All Blacks in the 1st test on June 30th at Carisbrook, Dunedin. England made five changes but any hope of providing an upset was wrecked when second row Danny Grewcock was sent off in the 30th minute for kicking All Black hooker Anton Oliver in the head. The All Blacks immediately turned the screw and scored three tries before half-time to lead 26-8 at the break. Although England did manage to score three tries, the All Black backline and back row scored nine tries between them to win commandingly by 64 points to 22.

Three days later it was the turn of the New Zealand Maori team. An overwhelming Maori victory by 62-14 left a battered England side to face the All Blacks for a second time in a week at Eden Park, Auckland. This time England made six changes to their side with Josh Lewsey moving from centre to fly half to replace the injured Wilkinson. The All Blacks began with two converted tries within sixteen minutes but England put up sterner resistance and were only behind at the break by seven points thank to a converted try by Dawson. A further four tries in the final quarter left New Zealand comfortable winners by 40-10 but the England team had fought hard against a side with some 'greats' among them, not least Christian Cullen, Andrew Mehrtens and Jonah Lomu.

A week later at Newlands, Cape Town, England faced their final daunting tour match against a South African team, winners of the 1995 World Cup and already ten matches into a 17-match unbeaten run. A rout was expected by the general rugby public but the wet conditions and a dogged defensive display kept the score down to 18-0. Although England with only two changes never looked like scoring a try, they were able to restrict the Springboks to just two tries from their prolific try-scoring winger Stefan Terblanche and their great scrum half Joost van der Westhuizen.

So ended an infamous tour. Despite being labelled the 'Tour from Hell', it may have been an invaluable learning experience for some players who were key to England's success over the next five to ten years. Jonny Wilkinson, Josh Lewsey, Matt Dawson in the backs and Phil Vickery and Lewis Moody in the forwards would appear in the World Cup Final in 2003, but for ten players it was their only appearance in an England international jersey and two further members of the touring party would never appear in an official test match for England.


  • Men in Black (5th edition) - Chester, McMillan and Palenski (Hodder Moa Beckett Publishers 2000)
  • Rothmans Rugby Union Yearbook 1999 - Mick Cleary & John Griffiths editors (Headline Publishing 1999)
  • Rugby at Newlands 1891-2015 - David McLennan & Chris Schoeman (Burnet Media 2015)
  • They came to conquer 1967 to 2002 - Maxwell Howell, Xie, Neazor & Wilkes (Focus Publishing 2003)
  • Thorny Encounters - Matt Elliott (Pitch Publishing 2018)

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.