By 1971 no Lions team had ever defeated the All Blacks in a Test series. Since 1904, six Lions sides had travelled to New Zealand and all had returned home bruised, battered and beaten. But the 1971 tour party was different. It was full of young, ambitious and outrageously talented players who would all go on to carve their names into the annals of sporting history during a golden period in British and Irish rugby. And at their centre was Carwyn Jones – an intelligent, sensitive rugby mastermind who would lead his team into the game’s hardest playing arena while facing a ferocious, tragic battle in his personal life, all in pursuit of a seemingly impossible dream. Up against them was an All Blacks team filled with legends in the game in the likes of Colin Meads, Brian Lochore, Ian Kirkpatrick, Sid Going and Bryan Williams. But as the Lions swept through the provinces, lighting up the rugby fields of New Zealand the pressure began to mount on the home players in a manner never seen before. As the Test series loomed, it became clear that a clash that would echo through the ages was about to unfold. And at its conclusion, it was obvious to all that rugby would never be the same again.
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About the Author
Peter Burns is the editor for Arena Sport and author of Behind the Thistle: Playing Rugby for Scotland, Behind the Ryder Cup: The Players’ Stories, White Gold: England’s Journey to World Cup Glory. Tom English is an award-winning BBC Sport writer and broadcaster. He won Rugby Book of the Year at the 2011 British Sports Book Awards for The Grudge.
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WE ALL WANTED TO BE CARWYN JAMES
RAIN ROLLED in over the Gwendraeth Valley in the heart of South Wales, a swirling wind sweeping across the field of the village rugby club, with its hand-cut steel goalposts lovingly painted in Cefneithin's yellow and green colours. It was a late-summer night in 1957 and there was little sound to be heard other than the intermittent thump of leather on leather as rugby ball was struck by boot. Carwyn James raised a hand in signal to a small group of boys who were huddled behind the posts, all shivering with the cold and who immediately punted the balls back to him.
It had become a tradition that, come rain or shine, whenever Carwyn came out to practise his kicking, the boys from the village would stand beneath the posts to collect the balls and kick them back to their hero, the famous fly-half for Llanelli, hoping to impress him with the shape of their spiral punts and to snatch a few words with him at the end. One of them was a small, wispy boy of twelve, with dark hair and a puckish expression. His name was Barry John.
Carwyn James was born in the winter of 1929. A thoughtful, shy child, he not only grew up during the height of the Great Depression, but also in something of an unconventional family set-up. His father worked long, hard hours at the Cross Hands Colliery in Cefneithin, while his mother was forced to pour most of her energy into caring for Carwyn's brother, Dewi, who had contracted diphtheria.
Carwyn's sister, Gwen, became something of a surrogate mother to him. He was an insular child, but he found creative outlets with a love of poetry and literature, and then through his talent for sport. He excelled at football and cricket, but it was rugby that stole his heart.
Carwyn became captain at Gwendraeth School, winning six caps for Welsh Schools and making his debut for Llanelli while he was still a pupil. Later, he went to Aberystwyth University to study Welsh. He immersed himself in politics, becoming president of the college branch of the Welsh nationalist party, Plaid Cymru. Later still, he became a Welsh language teacher. All the while, he established himself as the fly-half at Llanelli, and a player that could quicken the pulse. At Stradey Park, he would glide and dance and dictate play in the number-ten jersey. In 1958, at the age of twenty-nine, he won a long-overdue first cap for Wales in a 9–3 victory against Australia. It was a result that was celebrated far and wide throughout Wales, but nowhere more wildly than in Cefneithin.
Barry John: Can you imagine what it was like to be a boy from a little village like Cefneithin and to see Carwyn out there playing for Wales? He was the king. The hero. He was everything rolled into one. There were a lot of boys in the village when I was growing up and sport was always a big thing for us – Liverpool, Manchester United and all the rest of it – but rugby was the biggest. And to get one of the blokes from the village playing for Wales – it was unheard of. And then he went and dropped a goal against Australia. It was like Christmas for us all. We all wanted to be Carwyn James.
His parents' house backed onto the rugby field and he'd go in there to practise his kicking. The road where we lived was on the opposite side and we'd all go out to watch him. We'd be like little disciples, running around and catching the ball and kicking it back to him. We didn't have to rely on comic books for heroes. We had our own hero.
Carwyn may have been the master of Stradey Park, but he would only play once more for Wales – a 16–6 loss to France in Cardiff in the 1959 Five Nations. It was Carwyn's misfortune to be born in the same era as Cliff Morgan, one of the finest fly-halves of the twentieth century. 'I often wondered why I played more times for Wales than Carwyn,' reflected Morgan. 'I think it was because I was stronger. My schoolmaster always used to say, "You've got to have strength." He wrote in one school report, "Not very good in class, his biggest asset is his buttocks." He believed you had to have big buttocks to be able to ride tackles. And Carwyn was naturally slim and elegant and I was squat and rather nasty. I loved playing against him – he always had a smile. He'd always show you the ball as he was running at you, creating space because you had no idea where he was going to put it.'
For Carwyn, Test-level success wasn't to be, but his influence didn't end there. It wasn't just Barry John and his friends in Cefneithin who worshipped him. In Llansaint, a small village that overlooked the Carmarthen Bay, another young boy would play rugby in the streets, pretending to be Carwyn James.
Gerald Davies: Carwyn was my hero. He had this magical quality of being able to accelerate and sidestep, the ball always in two hands – an electrifying thing to see done so cleverly. I loved watching that. He was the first player I ever saw sidestepping, and he always seemed to have time on the ball. He had a huge influence on how I played.
He teased opponents, almost daring them to tackle him, persuading them to go one way when he had made up his mind to go the other. He was a marvellous player, a delicate player, a whippersnapper, a will-o'-the-wisp. The kind of player who would start the game with his shorts white and pristine and would end the game with his shorts white and pristine. Nobody could touch him.
As a child, I'd loiter after Sunday chapel to listen to the village pundits voice their opinions on the game. Arguments always raged and at no time were they fiercer than when it came to who should play outside-half for Wales. Cliff Morgan played twentynine times for Wales, Carwyn James only twice, but to every adult man in the village, it should have been the reverse.
Barry John: I was first picked for Llanelli when I was eighteen. I was still at school, yet here I was being asked to play for one of the greatest clubs in the world. When Carwyn finished playing, he came to coach us. He was such a breath of fresh air and his attitude to the game was very similar to my own. I just loved the way he thought about playing. He'd prowl around the changing room before kick-off and would always encourage us to play it as we saw it. 'Take a risk or two, make a few mistakes,' he'd say. 'As long as you are adventurers, I won't mind.' His changing room mantra was always, 'Think, think, think – it's a thinking man's game.'
After the horrors of the Second World War and the deprivation that stretched on for the years that followed, the generation that rose from the ashes of the conflict began to come together as ambitious young rugby players in the latter years of the 1960s. Many of them were implored by their parents to do anything but follow them into the heavy industries that dominated so many of the rugby heartlands around Britain. From the soul-destroying darkness and danger of life in the mines in South Wales, the middle and north of England and the central belt of Scotland to the long, laborious and perilous work of life in the shipyards of the Clyde and Belfast, life had been hard for many of them. This had, in turn, created hard men.
Gareth Edwards: My father was away for five years during the war and lost a great part of his life to it. He was a talented singer and there were opportunities for him at the end of the war to continue with that as a career, but he came back to the village and he got a job as a miner. People say to me now, 'Gareth, you've got to slow down, you're doing too much,' but I often think of my father and the life he led, and of all the opportunities that he missed out on.
He used to get up at four in the morning to be in work at six. He would work his eight-hour shift and somebody might say, 'Glan, there's a chance for you to work a doubler,' and he would take it and carry on. I never appreciated how hard it was until I went underground and visited a mine many years later. You couldn't see your hand in front of your face. It was a bloody gruesome thing.
Barry John: My father was a coal miner. Every morning at 4.30 a.m. he would rise and get ready to catch the bus to the Great Mountain Colliery at Tumble, just a few miles from our home. He would work relentlessly once he got there, only occasionally breaking for his sandwiches hundreds of yards underground – if the rats hadn't got to them first. Not only would he come home utterly exhausted and flop into his armchair, but there were times – if he was doing a double shift – when he'd not even see any daylight for ten days at a time. He would go to work in the dark, come home after six in the evening when it was dark, and in the meantime would be working down there in the pitch dark.
The natural role for me, and for anyone growing up in our village, for that matter, was to follow our fathers down the mines. But I promised my father I would never go underground. 'Barry,' he would tell me, 'if you don't do your homework, you know where you'll end up, don't you? Down the mines with me. And believe me, you don't want to be doing that.'
Gerald Davies: My father was a miner, too. Saturday afternoon's rugby match was the time for my father to get some of the floating coal dust out of his lungs, to stretch his limbs that had remained cramped and closeted for hours on end in a tiny, dirty black hole. For me, rugby was a recreational leisure activity; for him it was a great escape.
My father spent most of his working life underground. He had to get up very early in the morning, walk a mile and a half down to the railway track and then catch a train to Glynhebog Colliery. There were times during the winter when he literally did not see daylight at all, except for the weekends. As a result, he never wished anything of the kind on me. For the most part, my parents did much to protect me from any awareness of many of the hardships they had suffered. But they never failed to emphasise that if I didn't stick to my education then I would invariably follow my father down the pits.
Barry John: My school was near the colliery and I'll never forget the time of the wailing hooter. Our classroom overlooked the pit and I remember looking down and seeing a scene of just utter panic below us. As the hooter wailed, the teachers ran out of the classrooms and into the playground to try to see what was going on. We were running up and down corridors and in the distance we could hear the wailing sirens of the emergency vehicles.
We were like ants, rabbits, rats – just running into one another in blind panic, asking, 'What is it? What's happened? Is everyone okay?' There had been a huge blast down the pit. My father was so shell-shocked by the incident that he didn't speak for three days.
Mervyn Davies: My father loathed life underground. To him, the call to arms during the war was a godsend, a chance to flee from the pit. He once said the mines would have killed him if he'd stayed there a moment longer – he preferred taking his chance against the Germans. He was shipped out to North Africa with Montgomery's Eighth, was taken prisoner and bundled off to Germany where he spent his war trapped behind barbed wire. Although in many ways his war could have been much, much worse, it was an ironic fate to befall a man who had joined up because he felt imprisoned in the pit.
My parents made sure I worked hard at school. If I was going to get anywhere in life, if I wanted to avoid a dirty, dangerous future, if I wanted to get well away from the acrid smoke of the smelters' yard or the blackness of the mine, then I would have to 'think' my way out. My father didn't want either one of his boys toiling away like him.
Ian McLauchlan: I was born in the mining village of Tarbolton in Ayrshire. My father was a miner and a very strong man, but I also worked on the local farms in the summers from the age of thirteen – no shite about how old you were then. My dad had had vague ambitions that I should be a doctor. I wanted to be a teacher. He was happy for me to do anything to avoid that life down the pit.
Willie John McBride: I was brought up in a wee farm in Moneyglass in Antrim and sport was the last thing on our mind. My father died when I was four and we had to work on the farm. I didn't play rugby until I was seventeen, and the 1940s were tough. We went to school, came home and helped our mother. Sport wasn't a part of it for a long time. The first athletic thing I ever did at school was pole-vaulting. I was a pole-vaulter. Tall and skinny. I won the Ulster Schools Championship twice. Then I got too heavy and the pole broke and I was enticed out to play this game called rugby. And it turned out I was pretty good at it. Farming makes you tough.
John Pullin: Our family farm is in Aust in Gloucestershire, and I can't remember a time when I wasn't working. As Willie John says, farming makes you tough – which was just as well, because playing hooker for Bristol put you in the firing line in some fairly tasty Anglo-Welsh clashes over the years. Our farm is on the banks of the Severn and the view is all of Wales. I made my debut for Bristol against Newport in September 1961 and I was up against Bryn Meredith, the Wales and Lions hooker. It was a hell of an introduction. And we won. After that, I never looked back. I'd work on the farm from dawn until dusk and then run to training. It was hard, but it was good for me. It gave me a base fitness and strength that lasted my entire career.
Barry John: To earn money when I was eighteen, I had a seven-week spell working at the colliery during the summer holidays. I only worked up at the top, cleaning up a couple of huge pipes and giving the guys underground a helping hand by supplying them with tools. Those seven weeks underlined to me why my father was right to get me to do my homework. Suddenly I was up at the crack of dawn and on the same bus with him. I was young, fighting fit, playing a good standard of rugby and had just started a teaching course at Trinity College, Carmarthen. Every single morning I looked around the bus and saw men in their early twenties and thirties with their eyes shut who would suddenly jerk awake coughing, spluttering and wheezing – a legacy of breathing in coal dust every day. Many of them had been at school with me. All I knew at the end of that summer was that my career path would go in another direction. It had to.
AM I BORING YOU, YOU BIG PRICK?
IN THE autumn of 1967, the rugby machine that was Brian Lochore's All Blacks toured the northern hemisphere on the back of two years of blistering form. They had won eight of their previous nine Tests, beating the Springboks 3–1 in a four-match series in 1965 and walloping the Lions 4–0 in 1966. Over those nine matches, they had scored twenty-two tries and were, unquestionably, the most feared team on earth and one of the finest in the history of the game.
They were coached by Fred Allen, otherwise known as the Needle for his refusal to tolerate bullshit. He had captained the All Blacks on twenty-one consecutive occasions from 1946 to 1949 and then moved into coaching, guiding Auckland to twenty-four successive defences of the Ranfurly Shield, the most coveted trophy in New Zealand provincial rugby.
Colin Meads: Fred was a dictator. If you let him down, say, socially, you were cast out, you were gone. Other coaches would say, 'Come on, we need you back in this team. You've got to pull your horns in.' That wasn't Fred.
Chris Laidlaw: I was an All Black half-back under Fred. Once, shortly before a Test and in the middle of an Allen monologue, Colin Meads let slip a nervous yawn. Allen came at him like a cobra. 'Am I boring you, Colin?' Colin Meads: He actually said, 'Am I boring you, you big prick? There's a bus leaving in ten minutes if I am.'
Chris Laidlaw: If Allen had Meads in his pocket, it's not difficult to imagine his effect on the lesser souls of the team.
Colin Meads: Fred often used me as a means of showing the young ones that he had no favourites. He was straight and I liked that. Before he arrived, we used to be pretty dour and forward-orientated. Backs were a necessary evil. Then along came Fred and changed it all. He said, 'You're going to change and if you don't, you're out.' He convinced us that there was a better way to play the game. Fred told us what was going to happen: 'We're going to run the ball, it's going to get out to the wings and you big bastards up front are going to get there and there'll be no taking shortcuts.' He used to get into us terribly, which was good for us. And we took to his philosophy. It wasn't hard – we had good players, we were fit.
The All Blacks were a wrecking ball when they had to be and a thing of beauty when they wanted to be. In their squad they had hard-core leaders in Lochore, the captain from Wairarapa, Meads, the great icon from King Country, Kel Tremain, the fearsome openside from Hawke's Bay, and Ken Gray, the tighthead rock from Wellington. They also had a cavalry of other players who hadn't yet made their mark, but who would emerge soon enough – Ian Kirkpatrick, the flanker from Canterbury, his teammate, Alister Hopkinson, a prop with a reputation for badness, Jazz Muller, another prop from Taranaki, and Sid Going, a scrum-half from North Auckland.
Excerpted from "When Lions Roared"
Copyright © 2017 Tom English and Peter Burns.
Excerpted by permission of Polaris Publishing Ltd Birlinn Limited.
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Table of Contents
Prologue: Boy, could they play 1
1 We all wanted to be Carwyn James 7
2 Am I boring you, you big prick? 17
3 A fairly rude awakening 27
4 That was the end of Ernest Grundelingh 39
5 A thinking man's game 53
6 Des Connor was a nutter 73
7 He squirmed and wriggled - couldn't take it anymore 81
8 Athletic Park - mindboggling 93
9 A dagger in the heart 107
10 Canterbury - it was just a bit of biff 115
11 Like the Luftwaffe coming in 133
12 They regarded me as a sissy 157
13 I was a farm boy - tough 165
14 Up the mountain, dead boar round my neck 175
15 JPR saved my life 187
16 Rumble in the bay 207
17 The Eighth Wonder of the World 215
18 The King abdicates 233
19 There is a great loneliness upon me 241
20 No bugger wants to know you 251
21 The Immortals 259
Epilogue: 'You wait until you play…' 281