Dixon a low-key hero of legend

Lions on tour: At the heart of British rugby's greatest day in 1971 was an unsung, underrated Englishman
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The Independent Online

Peter Dixon was surprised to get the call. "Can anyone actually remember it?" he said. He did have a point. It is, after all, nearly 30 years now since he prowled in the pack for John Dawes' Lions against Colin Meads' All Blacks at Eden Park. A £35,000 signing from Scunthorpe United scored on his debut for Liverpool that day. His name was Kevin Keegan.

But then, the Lions never have enjoyed a prouder moment than the one they savoured in Auckland on 14 August, 1971. Their most famous victory was achieved with a 14-14 draw. It secured an historic series win by two Tests to one, the first-ever Lions success in the southern hemisphere. It earned lasting fame for the dazzling back-line: Gareth Edwards, Barry John, David Duckham, Mike Gibson, John Dawes, Gerald Davies and JPR Williams. It was Dixon, though, who scored the one Lions try in that fourth and final Test.

The All Blacks were 8-3 ahead with half-time approach-ing when the ball fell loose at a line-out in the left corner. "I just grabbed it and drove over," Dixon recalled. "It was a typical 80-yard try."

It is typical of Dixon to make light of it. There are no reminders of his rugby-playing glories on display at his Durham home. The walls and cupboards are covered with family photographs and various artefacts gathered in the course of his work as a lecturer in anthropology. "I have got a pile of old photos in there somewhere," Dixon said, pointing to the sideboard. "There's one of me grappling with Sid Going in that final Test, I think."

Dixon, a quietly affable, naturally self-effacing 57-year-old, does not care to dwell on his long-gone sporting past. He is rather tickled by the suggestion that he has become the forgotten man of the 1971 Lions. "Well, good," he said. "I'll get on with life."

Dixon always was an unlikely Lions hero. He had yet to play for England when he was picked for the 1971 tour, though he was hastily called up for a cap international against a Rugby Football Union President's XV before the squad departed.

"It was a huge surprise to be selected," he said. "I had not thought that I would be in the frame at all. I wasn't even in the frame for England at the time. I had been through a couple of years of attending trials and getting a few bits of white paper from the RFU saying, 'Can you be a non-travelling reserve?' but they had all dried up. I was thinking, 'I'm going to have to wait another year to try to get into the England picture'."

It was Dixon's direct style of back-row play that brought him into focus when Carwyn James, the Lions coach, finalised his squad with his fellow selectors. A robust 6ft 3in blindside flanker-cum-No 8, Dixon was invariably near the action in the loose for Harlequins and Oxford University, driving fearlessly at opponents ­ very much in the New Zealand way. Not that his pedigree was immediately evident on tour.

Dixon was in the team beaten 15-11 by Queensland in the opening match in Brisbane ­ "The worst Lions XV I've ever seen," Des O'Connor, the unfortunately-named Wallaby coach, famously observed. Six weeks later, though, Dixon was one of the Lions who not so much roared as clawed to a shock victory in the opening Test, 9-3 in Dunedin. "The All Blacks just came at us ferociously all game," he recalled. "We just seemed to be tackling the whole time. I touched the ball three times."

The second Test, in Christchurch, hit a painfully sharp incline on Dixon's steep learning curve. Catching the ball from the kick-off, he made the mistake of straying behind enemy lines without support. The entire All Black pack trampled over him. He was left clutching a gaping head wound. "It wasn't too bad," he said. "They just stuck half-a- dozen stitches in it and threw me back on." Dixie, as he was known by his team-mates, never was of chicken stock.

By no-side in Christchurch the Lions were licking the wound of a 22-12 defeat, but they won the Third Test in Wellington 13-3. Dixon lost his place to Derek Quinnell for that match but was back in the blindside berth, alongside Mervyn Davies and John Taylor in the back row, for the final test in Auckland.

As well as scoring the vital Lions try, Dixon distinguished himself on that momentous day by "tackling like a tiger," as Tudor James put it in his report for the Daily Mirror. He was never a Lion again, though he proceeded to become a fixture in the England back-row for the next seven years, forging a particularly formidable partnership with Tony Neary and Andy Ripley. He also played in the Gosforth teams that won the John Player Cup finals in 1976 and 1977, and tasted two more victories against the All Blacks ­ for the North West Counties in 1972 and for the North in 1979.

In the two decades since he hung up his boots, Dixon has dabbled in coaching ­ with Durham University, Blaydon and British Colleges. These days, though, he's not even a regular watcher of rugby ­ of rugby union, at any rate. "I see more rugby league games, actually," he said. "And at the moment I prefer watching that, dare I say it.

"The problem in a lot of rugby union games is there are too many people spread across the field and not enough space. That's partly the fault of the referees not allowing forwards to get in there and struggle for the ball, which gives more space to the backs. They need to address that, I think."

The problem for the 2001 Lions when they face the First Test in Brisbane on 30 June will be how to break through a Wallaby defence that has been constructed to solid rugby league specifications. Not that Dixon will be switching on his television set to see if they can do it. "I don't have Sky," he said. "I've got a black-and-white in the other room."

The forgotten hero of the '71 tour does, however, plan to watch the boys of 2001 on the big screen in the Durham City clubhouse. "I can see a certain similarity to our team," Peter Dixon said. "We had our core from the Welsh side and they have their core from the present England team. They'll do pretty well, I think."

They might even fare better in Brisbane than "the worst- ever Lions XV". Those Des O'Connors never were any good at going on the record.