It was in 1960/1 that the South African Springboks undertook their fifth tour of the British Isles, Ireland, and France. Between 22 October 1960 and 18 February 1961, they played 34 games, drawing two and losing one, the latter to the Barbarians. In that era, rugby union was an amateur sport with rules that differed greatly from those of today. And what a difference to the modern-day international tours of just three or four weeks.
On Saturday, 28 January 1961, the Springboks played Ulster at the Ravenhill (now called Kingspan) ground in Belfast. I was but fourteen years old, there with a small contingent from my grammar school in Coleraine. Of the day, I can recall little, except that it was very cold, and we were in standing room only. The Springboks won 19-6. That was the first and only time so far that I have attended an Ulster game.
The years rolled by, the rules changed quite radically, and in 1995, after the World Cup in South Africa, rugby union turned professional.
In 1999, the Welsh-Scottish league was formed and the next year it became the Celtic league, with the inclusion of the four Irish provinces. It became the Pro-12, when two Italian teams joined in 2011, and in 2017 was renamed the Pro-14 with the addition of two South African teams.
Many times, I have considered going over to Belfast to see an Ulster game, but the cost of the airfare, transportation, hotel, meals, ticket etc., has always put me off. I am very careful with my money. It is for good reason that I am known to many as ‘Uncle Scrooge’. So, I managed for many years to follow the fortunes of Ulster Rugby on my laptop, via free-to-view sports channels!
In 2020, Covid-19, travel restrictions, together with lack of funds, ended the involvement of the two existing South African teams.
But a British & Irish Lions tour was planned for mid-year 2021 and the enhancements to the Cape Town Stadium were already under way, to provide two hospitality areas, which were not included in the original development.
At the same time, the Cape Town team, the Stormers, would move their base to the Stadium. Their old headquarters at Newlands had been sold to property developers.
And then came the news that four of the top South African teams – the Stormers (Cape Town), Sharks (Durban), Bulls (Pretoria), and the Lions Johannesburg), would join the Pro-12 European league of four Irish, four Welsh, two Scottish and two Italian teams.
The initial tournament was to be called The Rainbow Cup. There were to be two pools of eight teams, each with two Irish teams, two Welsh, two South African, one Scottish and one Italian team, with a final to be played between the pool winners. It was to be a prelude to a full league program in the autumn of 2021.
So finally, it seemed that I would be able to walk the short distance down the hill in Green Point to the stadium and witness my second Ulster game. I even considered buying a season ticket, when they become available.
But alas, it was not to be, at least not for now. Covid and UK travel rules have killed the possibility.
But I continue to live in hope…