The day Matt Dawson threw a pacifier that bought an entire country! Former Lions scrum half recalls the sublime role he played in 1997’s historic series win against the Springboks
- Matt Dawson says Lions ‘had to bend the rules’ against South Africa in 1997
- Dawson scored a crucial try as the Lions defeated the Springboks in their opening test
- Lions star Ali Price is expected to produce a similar level of cunning on Saturday
Matt Dawson returns to a few minutes in 1997. To a hospital pass he never intended to receive and an inside ball he never intended to give.
‘You can’t plan something like that,’ says the former scrum half.
The uninviting gift came courtesy of Lions No 8 and good friend Tim Rodber. “He looked at me as if to say, ‘Try it Daws… it’s your turn.'”
Matt Dawson (center) was part of the Lions squad that won against South Africa in 1997
By the end of a grueling first test against South Africa in Cape Town, Plan A had run its course.
“We knew their scrum was world class,” explains Dawson. “It had to be about bending the rules. We worked on our height and tried to get lower than they could handle.’ That led to a formula: ‘I put the ball in, Keith Wood hooks it, Tim Rodber scoops the ball.’ The only problem? “Rodber would be completely crushed by the back row of South Africa as soon as he picked him up.”
Finally he had had enough. So, with seven minutes to go and the Lions trailing by a point, the responsibility fell on a 24-year-old with the shortest shoulders of the game. “I’m getting all marred,” Dawson thought.
So he shot straight from behind the scrum and dodged a tackle. Four more defenders swarmed. The isolated number 9 pretended to shoot the ball over his right shoulder.
Tim Rodber (left) hands the ball to Dawson during training at Twickenham Stadium
“You keep running until someone catches you,” he recalls. “You throw a dummy to try and gain some time for yourself. Before you know it, they’ve all fallen for it and you’re jogging into the corner. What the hell has everyone stopped for? “Okay, I’ll continue.”
As for Rodber? “He looks at me and thinks, ‘You cheeky little bastard’.”
The try turned the game in favor of the tourists. Alan Tait’s late score secured a 25-16 win that paved the way for a historic series win.
“Even when I was a little boy, I loved breaking down on the short side and trying to throw dummies,” recalls Dawson.
“It was 15-20 years of understanding body language, those fractions of seconds. Did they fall for it? What are their eyes doing?’
How Warren Gatland could do with similar cunning when the Lions return to Cape Town on Saturday. To you, Ali Price.
Some of the principles of that 1997 tour will remain relics of another era. “The rules were established early on,” explains Dawson. “As long as you’re in shape to train the next day and nobody’s bothering you, you’re going to fill boots.
“It didn’t matter if you slept for an hour or if you were in bed and your roommate showed up at five in the morning.”
Ali Price is expected to produce a similar level of cheating as Dawson did for this Lions team
No one pushed those boundaries more than support Paul Wallace. He woke up with two hours of sleep, hit the scrummage machine 50 times and was picked for playing so brilliantly. And yet you could count on one hand how many nights he didn’t go out.’
An injury to Rob Howley opened the door to the test team for Dawson, but Howley proved a useful human study. “I shared a room with him and he preferred a hard bed so he would put the mattress on the floor and put the bed against the wall, rather than carry on and have a sore back.”
Those lessons paid off in Cape Town, where the Lions’ extracurricular activities in the locker room resumed. “I went to the bathroom to get some time because it was so manic,” recalls Dawson. His cell phone was flooded with voicemails. One was from a friend at a raucous bar in Northampton. “He bet the Lions would win,” recalls Dawson. “So I’m not sure if he was partying because I scored, it was because he won a lot of money!”
Matt Dawson spoke to the Daily Mail in association with William Hill.