Lions and the fight against apartheid
July 11, 2014
Fran Cotton looks to pounce on the ball for the Lions against the apartheid-era Springboks © Getty Images
Forty years ago I was one of the few British and Irish rugby fans not gearing up to watch history being made so I feel a bit of a party pooper writing this piece. I very much wanted the Lions to beat the Springboks in the third Test to wrap up a series victory for the first time in the modern era but, having declared myself unavailable, I felt it would be inconsistent, hypocritical even, to follow it on radio or television so I just switched off from the whole tour.
It was a very weird feeling. A number of my Lions team-mates from 1971 including a couple of my very closest friends - Mervyn Davies and JPR Williams - were at the heart of the action but how could I watch when I supported a sporting boycott of South Africa as a weapon in the fight against apartheid?
It would be true to say there was not much support for my stance in the rugby community in those days and people still come up to me and say, 'You're the guy who turned down a Lions' Tour - how could you do that?'
The 1974 tour was famed for its violence © Getty Images
1970 was the difficult decision because I was aware I was very definitely putting my whole international career in jeopardy. The WRU accepted my withdrawal as a 'matter of conscience' but then left me out of the squad for the Five Nations Championship. Fortunately, Wales had a bad season and (with the National Union of Miners lobbying for me) I was recalled for the final game against France. However, several senior RFU officials went out of their way to let me know I would never have played international rugby again had I been English. My only regret is that it did cost me a place in the great Barbarians game in 1973 but that is another story!
Did I try to get other players to boycott the tour? No - I had been on the 1968 Lions Tour to South Africa and that is what had persuaded me so I did not feel I had the right to proselytise. I talked it through with friends such as JPR and Merve but they took the view they were just playing rugby for their country and that was fine with me.
The rugby mantra trotted out in 1968 - and right up until it finally became accepted that it was impossible to tour in the 80s - was that we were not supporting apartheid, we were building bridges and contact was the best way to win friends and influence people. I was 22 years old and desperately wanted to play for the Lions so although (as a schoolteacher in a big multi-racial school in London) I had misgivings I was happy to toe the party line.
It is still hard to believe that the New Zealand selectors just left out their Maoris for tours to South Africa until the 70s. There were very few black players in Britain and Ireland in that era but, judging by the way cricket handled the D'Oliveira debacle, our rugby establishment would have done the same.
Did the sporting boycott have any effect? I would like to believe it played a huge part in helping to break down apartheid. Economic factors were massively important, of course, but in the 60s and 70s the laws relating to separation were becoming even more draconian with new measures such as the Group Areas Act coming on to the statute book. Things only started to change when they were isolated by the rest of the sporting world.
Now I am proselytising - apologies. I first watched the tapes of the 1974 series in the early 90s when I went back to South Africa and there is no question, the Lions were a phenomenal team. Enjoy your 40th anniversary celebrations guys - beating the Boks was a real shock for white South Africa and might even have helped in the end!
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd
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