'We were charging round getting battered'
November 13, 2013
Roger Young, Gareth Edwards and Billy Raybould practise their passing before flying out to South Africa in 1968 © Getty Images
They came from far and wide - John O'Shea and Sandy Hinshelwood from Australia, Keith Savage (still using the suitcase he was given to tour New Zealand in 1966), Roger Young from South Africa and Peter Stagg from France - the rest from various parts of the UK and Ireland.
45 years ago the Celtic Manor Resort might have been battening down the hatches because this was a reunion of the 1968 Lions who had a fearsome reputation for partying but time has mellowed everybody and the 23 players who made it down to Wales last weekend were all on their best behaviour, not a glass broken, nor a door off its hinges!
We were not the most successful Lions - there were always four Tests in the days of long tours lasting well over three months and we lost the series 3-0 to the Springboks with one draw - but in many ways 1968 marked the end of an era.
Gareth Edwards (who celebrated his 21st birthday during the tour) Barry John, Gerald Davies, John Pullin and I were all on our first tours and it was a huge eye opener. What we learned in South Africa in 1968 paved the way for the victories in New Zealand in 1971 and then South Africa in 1974 - the first Lions' series victories in those countries in the 20th century!
Ronnie Dawson, as sprightly and neat as ever at 81, was our coach although the four Home Unions were still reluctant to admit it and insisted he be called 'Assistant Manager' but we were totally unprepared for the level of, dare I say, professionalism we encountered from the Springboks.
The International Rugby Football Board decreed that national teams were only allowed to meet 48 hours before a match in those days but whilst this was strictly obeyed in the UK and Ireland, it was totally ignored by the Springboks who spent as much time together as we did. Whilst they were cocooned in training camp getting fully acclimatised to altitude when necessary, we were charging round the country getting battered - lambs to the slaughter.
You soon got the feel from old lags such as Willie John McBride and Syd Millar, already on their third tours, that we should not really expect to win and the main point was to have a very good time. Most people did that in spades.
There were virtually no travelling supporters and the press corps - there were only about a dozen from 'home' - were almost a part of the team so what went on tour very definitely stayed on tour, thank goodness, because the party soon split into two groups, the 'Wreckers' and the 'Kippers.'
This was not a rift that threatened the unity of the group when it came to rugby matters - I hasten to add, we were definitely all for one and one for all in that respect - but the Wreckers liked to party and after a certain hour their sole aim seemed to be to prevent the Kippers getting their sleep.
Harry Bowcott makes a point to his fellow British Lions selector Des McKibbon © PA Photos
Probably best to draw a veil over some of the excesses at this point but in case anybody is wondering why the manager did nothing to curb them it was because he was the leader (with the captain, Tom Kiernan, and senior forward McBride, able assistants). The wonderful David Brooks was Harlequins old school, unflappable and unstoppable.
In those days Rhodesia used to play in the Currie Cup and were included on the Lions' itinerary but this was the time of Ian Smith and UDI in what is now Zimbabwe so a telegram arrived from the Foreign Office just as we were about to leave for Salisbury (Harare).
Brooksy knew it would contain an instruction not to go so he refused to take delivery of it and we went to Rhodesia, played the match and carried on with the tour. Billy Raybould confirmed at the weekend he still has Smith's autograph.
Watching the avuncular, O'Shea, doting on his grandchildren on Sunday morning it was hard to believe this is the man who still holds the unique distinction of being the only Lion ever to have been sent-off. I can say 'distinction' because it was truly farcical. We were playing Eastern Transvaal at Springs in front of the most hostile small town crowd you can imagine.
A scuffle broke out amongst the forwards (handbags - no damage) and Tess (O'Shea) was isolated by half a dozen home forwards. When the dust settled the home referee singled him out (the only Lion involved) and dismissed him. Suddenly thousands of oranges - they cost nothing and every spectator seemed to have a bag of them - rained down on him as he made the long walk back to the dressing room.
Willie John rushed down from the stand to offer protection, dealing peremptorily with one idiot as he tried to attack Tess, and this was the genesis of the infamous '99' call six years later in 1974. McBride was determined nobody would ever again be isolated so when the call came everybody had to pile in so that the referee could never single out one offender. It worked - there were some really ugly brawls in '74 but nobody received their marching orders.
All these tales and many more got another airing over the weekend and everybody agreed the only way to celebrate the 50th anniversary is with a return visit to South Africa - are they up for the challenge we all wondered as we made our weary way home?
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John Taylor is a former Wales international who toured with the British & Irish Lions in 1968 and 1971. Since retiring he has worked in the media and has covered the last eight Lions tours as a commentator or journalist
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