Partners on a sentimental journey

Chris Rea enjoys four days of celebration of life with the Lions
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The Independent Online
All our yesterdays packed into four physically shattering but joyously sentimental days. If the 1971 Lions know a thing or two about rugby, they can also party. The 25th anniversary celebrations of that historic tour to New Zealand began in Cardiff last Wednesday and ended up yesterday at Twickenham where the Lions made a guest appearance at the Middlesex sevens.

Perhaps the golden ghosts and silver shadows had lost a little of their sylph-like splendour in the intervening years, but, courtesy of that relentlessly energetic charity, the Wooden Spoon Society, they have been given the opportunity to relive their past and revel unashamedly in former glories.

It has been four days of undiluted fun and laughter, the reopening of a veritable treasure trove of memories. As Gordon Brown put it: "We don't want to live in the past but it's great to visit there once in a while."

Brown was a callow laddie of 23 when he was picked for the tour. He was the youngest member of the pack and a novice in the art of lifemanship. When the party assembled in London before departure, he discovered that he was to be rooming with the legendary Willie John McBride. "Willie John was my all-time hero," remembers Brown. "I was completely in awe of the man and here I was sharing a room with him." Quite what McBride thought of Brown was another matter. "I stumbled into the room," recalls Brown, "with five suitcases, all of them lovingly packed by my mother. She had put in a fresh vest for every day of the tour and Willie John, who was making his fourth Lions trip, had stuffed everything he would need into one tiny kit bag. He shook his head in total disbelief and utter disgust."

At this stage, McBride had no reason to believe that the 1971 tour was going to be any different from the previous three, all of which had ended in failure. As long as he lives, McBride will remember the build-up to the first Test at Dunedin. The previous week the Lions had lost three key members of the Test pack in that infamous match against Canterbury - Sandy Carmichael, with smashed cheekbones, Ray McLoughlin with a smashed thumb and Fergus Slattery with smashed teeth. Carmichael and McLoughlin would take no further part in the tour. McBride had been entrusted with the leadership of the pack and five minutes before kick-off had taken the forwards aside for a private word. "Let me tell you," he said, "the All Blacks will run at us until they drop and unless we keep tackling them until we drop there is no point in going on to the field."

Sure enough, the All Blacks mounted a series of attacks, the ferocity of which I have seldom witnessed since. But never once did the Lions flinch in the face of this terrifying assault. As McBride was getting up from yet another tackle, Sean Lynch, the Irish prop, was lying face down in the mud. Through the grit and grime, he pleaded: "For Christ's sake, will you take a count of those All Blacks for I've already tackled 37 of the bastards." Victory in that first Test against all the odds and wholly unexpected, remains one of the proudest moments of McBride's life.

The highlight of the reunion was a lavish dinner in London on Friday night. There was a poignant tribute to the coach, Carwyn James, whose matchless intellect and vision gave the Lions such a massive psychological and tactical advantage. James had quickly identified a number of key players in the party. One was the England full-back Bob Hiller who was never going to oust JPR Williams from the Test side but whose captaincy of the Midweek XV was crucial to the overall success of the tour. James recognised the importance of a winning second string and Hiller was the very man to forge the team spirit epitomised by John Spencer, the England centre who, when called into the Saturday side, sent Hiller a telegram apologising for his absence which, he assured his captain, would be only temporary.

Hiller also recounted the occasion when, on some up- country paddy field of a pitch, David Duckham scored six tries, marvelling not that the tries had been scored, but that Duckham should have contrived to score them as far from the posts as possible, leaving Hiller with the conversion attempts from a waterlogged touchline. Needless to say, Hiller kicked all six goals.

My own abiding memory of that tour is of leaving Heathrow Airport in early May, seen off by two or three representatives from the four home unions and returning at the end of August to be greeted by a crowd of over 2,000. For the first time, rugby had broken out beyond the clubhouse. Edwards, John, Duckham, Davies, McBride and so many others had become household names. It was a watershed in the game and the pace of change has quickened ever since.

But, as Gordon Brown so eloquently put it on Friday night, the 1971 Lions would, at today's rates, be worth millions yet the memories, undimmed by the years and the everlasting comradeship, are beyond price.