Gerald Davies on the adventure of the Lions

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The Independent Online

He once turned his back on a Lions tour of South Africa, uncomfortable at the consequences and realities of apartheid. For a young rugby player to do that in 1974, was a very profound step indeed.

But when the 2009 Lions arrive in South Africa next May, Gerald Davies will lead them as Tour Manager with a sense of honour and privilege. The selection of the former Welsh wing threequarter and Lion in 1968 and 1971 is an inspired selection.

Thomas Gerald Reames (T.G.R.) Davies sits amid the regal splendour of London’s Garrick Club, in the heart of West End theatre land, and turns the clock back 34 years. Dapper in a beautifully cut suit and elegant tie, Davies talks of the time when he turned his back on the Lions, ahead of their 1974 tour to the Republic.

Of course, it was another South Africa in those days. The subjugation of an entire people and their gross humiliation, the petty rules and restrictions, the naked hostility caused by the colour of a skin: many of us who came to South Africa at that time, saw it and were repelled. A visitor myself for the first time in 1972, I swore I would never return until apartheid had ended.

Gerald Davies expresses similar sentiments and memories. “I had a very strong concern about apartheid. I felt a strong moral conscience about what was going on there. I had been there twice – with Cardiff in 1967 and the Lions in 1968 – and I felt uncomfortable.

“There was someone out there, living in Cape Town, that I had been friendly with at Loughborough (his English college). He was Cape Coloured and I knew I wouldn’t be able to socialise with him as I had at college.

“It was purely a personal thing. I didn’t feel I wanted to politicise it; it was a personal moral feeling I had. It wasn’t for me to try and influence others; they were sportsmen who wanted to compete. It was between myself and my conscience and I have never regretted that decision.”

Besides, he smiles, looking back at the past is where madness lies. Regret is a mean thing, an unworthy state that can make a person weary.

But does Davies not now believe that had other world sportsmen and governing bodies turned their backs earlier against the apartheid Government in South Africa, to the extent of severing all sporting contacts, proper change might have been forced a lot sooner?

“No-one can tell what would have happened if events had turned out the other way. That is why I kept those things to myself. The political situation then was a very delicate, sensitive area. I had no desire to make a political point of it. All I needed to do was think about what I was happy or unhappy with. And remember, we are still having those arguments today over whether the cricketers should go to Zimbabwe.

“Now, I look forward to going back. In 1968 on the Lions tour, we didn’t see that much but there was this division, in hotel rooms, foyers and elsewhere: the division between white and black people. I had been brought up in a very different environment.”

Way back in 1955, when the Lions made probably their most celebrated tour of South Africa, a 10 year-old lad proffered his few pence to the man on the door of the Regal cinema in Llanelli, and was admitted into the dark interior. The youngster climbed into one of those big, old, stuffed seats and sat waiting expectantly. Then came the familiar tune announcing ‘Pathe News’. A film of the 1955 Lions, Cliff Morgan, Tony O’Reilly, Jeff Butterfield et al, on tour in faraway South Africa, followed.

“It was the only rugby you could get on a screen; this was before television was available in most of Wales” remembers Davies. “Watching those Lions struck a great chord of adventure. Rugby to me was going to Stradey Park (Llanelli’s home ground) and standing on the Tanner bank, shivering in the cold. Rugby was always associated with winter.

“But watching those tapes, I saw rugby teams playing in sunlight, below blue skies with palm trees visible. They played where the grass was yellow. That created for me an image of exotic locations and that image has stayed with me.”

Davies uses the same word, adventure, to encapsulate the whole raison d’etre of the Lions. “It is an adventure to go on a Lions tour. There is this image of romanticism, of adventure. People follow this image everywhere, to Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. And those countries need the Lions for they are the biggest brand in world rugby. Yet if you started now, in the professional era with a blank piece of paper, the Lions would not exist.

“But perhaps the Lions have a contribution to be seen as something beyond the rugby field. After all, sport is a cultural event, it goes beyond the playing field. It affects people’s lives, their way of living, their joy, fun and sorrow. It influences how a country feels about itself and I am comfortable with that. You can’t isolate any sport from the society it springs from.”

That, of course, is the completely contrary opinion to the muddled, allegedly disingenuous view lamely put out by rugby administrators around the world back in the 1970s who, trying to defend their continuing dealings with the apartheid Government, insisted rugby, as a sport, had nothing to do with an individual country and its philosophies. It never washed then and it still doesn’t. No country should have toured here after 1970, just as no team of any sport should have had any links with Zimbabwe for at least the last decade. Sport damages its values by such pig headed intransigence. For sure, rugby football’s great name was sullied by its ongoing relations with apartheid South Africa in the 1970s and 1980s.

But happily, those times are now past and Davies’ selection for the job of tour manager in 2009 left him nonplussed. He hadn’t thought about it until the moment he was asked. Briefly, he pondered the invitation but quickly came to the conclusion that if he didn’t accept, it could become a moment he would always regret in his life.

He was right to think in such a way. In 2005, the Lions toured New Zealand, got hammered out of sight but took 25,000 touring fans with them from Ireland and the British Isles. In South Africa next year, some estimates suggest as many as 50,000 visitors will flood into the country from the northern hemisphere on this rugby odyssey. The Lions finished ? Believe it or not, when professionalism burst onto the world rugby scene back in 1995 like some bawling new-born demanding immediate attention, plenty of people forecast the end of the Lions.

Davies outlines one of the reasons why instead, their brand has soared, not sunk, since professionalism. “In my day, the main tournament we played was the Five Nations Championship. It is a great competition but it doesn’t really, truly prepare you for playing against South Africa, New Zealand or Australia for the Lions. The tension is greater.

“It is a new experience for most players and what they will need to understand next year is that it is a short period of concentration, playing and application, and in the wink of an eye it is over.”

Davies’ 1968 tour to South Africa was not successful for him personally. “I was injured most of the time after picking up an ankle injury and no matter how much treatment I had, it took a long time to recover. Then a late tackle against the Free State gave me a dislocated elbow and that was the end of my tour.”

But three years later in New Zealand, he was a hugely influential figure in helping the Lions become the only British Isles and Ireland touring party in history to win a Test series on New Zealand soil.

But the Lions have huge lessons to learn after the catastrophe of 2005 when so much went wrong. Davies admits he is talking to former players, coaches and administrators to trace the roots of a successful Lions tour and learn lessons from the failures.

The challenge to the 2009 Lions from the reigning World Champions will be huge; hard, tough and uncompromising, he asserts. But with Gerald Davies and Ian McGeechan at the helm as manager and coach, South Africans can be sure these new Lions will not only play with pride and be highly competitive, but a credit to the brand in all they do. Davies always was, whoever he represented, and his Lions will be no different next year.