By allyn Freeman

In August 1978, a touring side from the USA visited South Africa. Without the official sanction of the USA Rugby Union, the team could not call itself the “Eagles” (i.e.; the true national fifteen), and, instead, were named the Cougars. In South Africa, a similar nomenclature problem prohibited using the Springboks nickname. The home side would be called the Gazelles.

            Since the formation of the USARFU in 1975, the Eagles lost Test matches to Australia, France, a second tier England XV, and Canada. But in 1978, the team defeated Canada 12-7 for the country’s first international rugby victory.

            The Cougars lost the first two tour contests, 16-10 to Natal, and 44-12 to Country Districts. The South African press commended the Cougars for their sharp tackling but faulted the squad for ineffective loose forward play. A recurring criticism that dogged past matches was the failure to link up in open field breakaways.

Game Three: Combined Universities 16 – Cougars 7

            The venue moved to Cape Town where the opposition would be comprised mainly of Stellenbosch University students coached by the legendary Dr. Daniël Craven, a popular rugby union player, national coach, academic, and author. The match was held at Newlands Stadium in front of 6,000 spectators on a muddy pitch.

            The Cougars scored first off a rucking infringement; the penalty taken by Jablonski. The USA led 3-0. Speedster Tommy Smith bolted into the open but the closest teammate was 30-yards behind. Universities scored twice in the second half to increase the lead to 10-3. The USA narrowed the deficit to 10-7 on a push over try. The schoolboys notched two penalties to vault into a 16-7 final margin. Coach Craven predicted the Cougars “…would win one, if not both of two big matches of the tour.”

Game Four: Cougars 18 – Northern Transvaal 15

            Northern Transvaal had won the prestigious Currie Cup, emblematic of the best club in South Africa.  For the Cougar match, it fielded a combined mix of younger players and veterans, including, the 6′ 8″ Tiny Barnard and Springbok Dan du Plessis. The large stadium (56,000 capacity) welcomed 8,500 fans. The Cougars played tentatively at the outset, saved by shattering tackles at the goal line. Penalties were exchanged as the score evened up at 3-3. Transvaal mounted a full pitch, 100-meter movement, converted, and went ahead 9-3. The Cougars responded with a snappy try by Scheitlin. Score tied 9-9 at the half.

            Second half started with Jablonski’s perfect kick from 40-meters to give the Cougars the first (12-9) scoring lead of the tour. The home side decided to run from a kickable penalty but were stopped by the Cougar’s stout defense. The Americans rallied for six more points, sensing victory in sight. The hosts managed six points of their own. Not enough. Cougar’s surprising triumph at 18-15 and the first win of the tour.

Game Five: Griqualand West 13 – Cougars 4

            The next match against Griqualand West took place in the remote area of Kimberly, historic home of the diamond industry. It was that year’s favorite to win the Pienaar Cup for smaller unions. The match was played in De Beers Stadium to a crowd of 4,000. The pitch proved hard and fast.

            USA Coach Ray Cornball decided to use a three prop front row, thereby saving Hollings for the big match against the Gazelles. The 36-year old Ording would serve as hooker, and was the line out thrower. The two sides appeared sluggish and both squads missed penalties in the first period. Finally, the Griquas hit a penalty after three misses to lead 3-0 at the break. The home fifteen added ten more points, attaining a 13-0 lead. The Cougars scored a 40-meter, last minute try.

Game Six: Gazelles 20 – Cougars 16

            The semi-official Test match against a select, Under-25 side of the next generation of Springboks was played in Ellis Park, Johannesburg, in front of 10,500 fans (Capacity – 63,00).

The Cougars scored first on burst through try by Fanucci to go ahead 3-0. Then, with the clock ticking, the tourists managed a second score and conversion to stun the Gazelles by leading 13-0 at the half. With the country’s rugby prestige in the line, the Gazelles rebounded in the second half, gaining two quick tries, tying the match. Jablonski hit a short penalty, putting the Cougars ahead 13-10. The Gazelles responded with a converted try, and, at the 68th minute, led for the first time 16-13. A final Gazelle try and a last period drop goal by Cooke ended the well-balanced contest with a narrow South African win at 20-16.

            The local media were unanimous in their praise for the visitors. From journalist Mike Shafto of The Sunday Mail, “The Cougars tackled so hard, our boys didn’t know what hit them.”

(Photo: Ellis Park Stadium)

Game Seven: Rhodesia 32 – Cougars 15

            The nation of Rhodesia (once, North and South) transformed into Zimbabwe after independence in 1980. The Rhodesia RFU was delighted the Cougars arrived in the midst of a guerilla war dividing the country. Some of the Rhodesia XV players came in from fighting in the bush for the match.  The Cougars fielded a weak fifteen with only nine previous tour starters, the side suffered from injuries and fatigue. The match was played in the Metropolitan Police Grounds, which attracted a large crowd of 15,000. The Rhodesians were fit and numbered many players of international status. At halftime, the host nation led 13-9. A quick try in the second half increased the lead by 10 points. The rout continued with Rhodesia running in two more tries.

Final Note

            The  final assessment came from Doc Craven who said, “They’re (Cougars) rough, raw and ready but they do the simple things well.”  The team performed admirably.

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