Band of Brothers - Lions of '71 roar one more time
May 28, 2008
"The hair was grey or sparse but the faces were still recognisable. This was a rare reunion of the 1971 Lions, still the only Lions to beat New Zealand in a Test Series." John Taylor meets some old friends to reminisce
I shall never forget Ian McGeechan's team talk two hours before the Second Test in South Africa in 1997. It was delivered in a quiet, even gentle, tone but there have been few motivational speeches to match it.
'You'll meet each other in the street in 30 years time and there will just be a look and you'll know just how special some days in your life are ......Go out there, enjoy it, remember how you got here and why. Finish it off and be special for the rest of your lives.'
Anyone who was in Falmouth last weekend knows exactly what he meant.
The hair was grey or sparse (in my case very sparse compared to the Afro I favoured in those days) but the faces were still recognisable. This was a rare reunion of the 1971 Lions, still the only Lions to beat New Zealand in a Test Series.
We hadn't been together for 10 years but that special bond that McGeechan was referring to was there for all to see. We embellished the old stories, relived the memories for the occasion but, for us, that was not the point - we were a band of brothers again.
Why Falmouth? Because Penryn RFC invited us to a dinner to celebrate the 35th anniversary of one of their greatest coups - a game against a Lions side in 1973.
Pic: The '71 British & Irish Lions pose for a picture during their tour of Australia and New Zealand.
It was also to remember and celebrate the life of Les Williams who had been instrumental in setting up that match.
He won seven caps for Wales scoring two tries in Wales's first victory over England after the war at Cardiff Arms Park in 1949 and would surely have been a Lion himself in 1950 had he not signed for Hunslett Rugby League Club.League player.
He was, of course, now banned for life from having anything to do with Rugby Union but when he arrived in Cornwall as Assistant Director of PE for the county he soon found a way to bend the rules.
He was also a remarkable athlete - setting various British records and competing in the World Veterans Championships in Puerto Rico in 1983 at the age of 61 - and, because Penryn was also an athletics club, was able to take charge of fitness and conditioning as long as the sessions took place on the school playing fields and not at the rugby club.
His former charges can now confess that he did far more. He was way ahead of his time and his skills sessions contributed enormously to Penryn's golden era.
In 1973 they reached the quarter-finals of the National Knockout Cup before being knocked out by London Welsh. The population of the town/village was only 2,000 but more than 4,000 spectators were packed into the ground - I know that's true because I played that day!
Until 1995 he would have to watch matches from the terraces but that never dampened his enthusiasm and he was eventually awarded the Freedom of Falmouth (Penryn) for his services to sport.
I had always been a little dismissive about reunions but I have to say I'm now a convert. I stay in touch with about half the team but it was catching up with the others that made it so special.
Pic: Scrum's own John Taylor - circa 1971 (Getty)
Ray McLoughlin, the grizzly Irish prop (and one of the best technicians the game has ever known) has now mellowed into a Richard Harris look-alike but proved he is still a thoughtful student of the game as we watched the Heineken Cup Final.
Sandy Carmichael, the man who took the brunt of the disgraceful Canterbury assault a week before the first test and had both cheek bones smashed, has longer hair now than then.
He is on his third artificial hip on one side and the second on the other but insists the only reason he is on crutches is because his ankles are shot and need doing too.
Ian 'Mighty Mouse' McLauchlan has at last managed to top 16 stone but you still wouldn't want to take him on.
John Bevan, the baby of the party, hasn't put on an ounce and still looks fit enough to play while Delme Thomas, the telephone line-man from Carmarthen, looks so svelte you can't believe he was ever in the second-row at a time when only the toughest survived
Our captain, the avuncular John 'Syd' Dawes, who had been the driving force in getting us all together, got some looks of disbelief when the Penryn juniors asked what position he played.
Gareth Edwards seemed to remember it all as if it was yesterday. Nobody really believed it when he told how the Canterbury referee said he was going to concentrate on the ball and ignore everything else but it was absolutely true - and he still knew all the words of all the songs.
Finally, we drank a toast to Broon from Troon, the only player no longer with us, and the incomparable Carwyn James and Doug Smith, our coach and manager, missed but the memories are great.
Pic: The late great Gordon Brown was toasted by the remaining '71 Lions. (Getty Images)
McGeechan was right - there is nothing more special than winning a test series and 30 years on (or in our case 37) it took just one look and, sad old buggers that we are, we were blood brothers all over again.
Roll on the next party - our recovery rate is not quite so good these days but we should be ready for our 40th anniversary in 2011.