Farewell to the greats
May 11, 2011
Seve Ballesteros takes a shot in 1998 © Getty Images
In the days when the game was amateur, we rugby players were very much the poor relations in the sporting pantheon but we did get invited to various functions and one of the biggest perks was meeting some of the great names in other sports.
The deaths of Sir Henry Cooper and Seve Ballesteros brought memories flooding back. They were two of my particular heroes and I was lucky enough to spend some time with both of them. Golf was the catalyst in both cases. I first played the game on a British & Irish Lions tour and might easily have become an addict had I not had to earn a living. I'm still promising myself I'll get down to single figures when I retire - it will never happen but, in the meantime, I do get to a few charity events and that is where our paths crossed.
Henry was an avid golfer and we became mates as soon as we discovered we were both lefties. He was a great storyteller and we spent a lot of time together over the years, but the night I remember most was when we shared a cabin on the overnight ferry from Portsmouth to Cherbourg to play in a Lord's Taverners tournament a few years ago.
When we retired to our bunks I got the story of the Cassius Clay (Henry liked to point out he didn't become Muhammad Ali until the year after) fight at Wembley up front and very personal. Forty years later he had still not forgiven Angelo Dundee for nicking Clay's glove to gain extra time when he had first steered him back to the corner and then administered smelling salts.
Just as fascinating though were his memories of training. Some of the rugby training back in the 60s was pretty primitive but boxing was definitely in the dark ages. Cooper did all his road work - it was more like a marathon schedule with 10 mile daily runs - in his old army boots because his trainer believed the extra weight would give him added leg strength. "It was crazy, that's why I'll need a buggy tomorrow," he said with that trademark cross between a grimace and a grin.
I first met Seve at a golf exhibition in Birmingham. There was a hospitality room for the privileged guests and, for some reason I forget, I had my mother in tow and had left her there with a coffee while I competed in some daft bunker competition organised by the charity I was supporting. I was flabbergasted to discover her deep in conversation with the great man when I returned. He had apparently marched straight up to her - she is not a pushy Mam - and asked who she was and why she was there.
She is no golf fan but she knew who Seve was and was totally overwhelmed. I was a bit taken aback myself. I wanted to talk golf but he insisted on talking rugby for the next half hour. I met him a couple of times after that and he always asked after my mother. She is now 94 - sadly, he is no longer with us.
Coincidentally (nothing to do with Henry) I also met Ali as he was just about to return to the ring after he had been banned from boxing because he would not do military service. It was a function to launch a new Ovaltine drink at the Royal Lancaster Hotel and the advertising agency wanted a sportsman on every table. Roger Uttley and I were the two rugby representatives.
There was no fee - we could not have taken it in any case - but the great attraction was an hour with the great man before the main function got underway. To give them credit they had done their homework. As I stepped forward to be introduced Ali went straight into overdrive. "John Taylor - I understand you're crazy," he said. "I'm told you get beaten up more than me, you don't wear any sort of protection and you don't even get paid for it."
I'm certain he knew nothing about rugby but by the time he'd finished I really did feel we must be mad to play the game. It was a memorable evening and he, of course, finished with one of his famous rhymes. I cannot remember anything but the last two lines: "People ask me where I've been - I tell them I've been drinking Ovaltine." Daft but true.
There was also an occasion when the London Welsh contingent of the 1971 Lions were partly responsible for causing George Best to miss a match for Manchester United - and not because of injury - but we'll save that one for another day.
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