John Taylor: Rebel with a cause

In 1974 John Taylor turned down a Lions tour of South Africa. He tells Simon Turnbull why apartheid made it a black-and-white decision

John Taylor apologises for the temporary glitch on the line. "I'm on my way to a meeting," he says. It transpires that the former Wales flanker is en route to a briefing about his role in leading a supporters' trip following the British and Irish Lions on their tour of South Africa. "I'm also writing some pieces for scrum.com and doing some stuff for SunSport television. I leave next Wednesday."

Back in 1968 Taylor left these shores for Springbok country as a Lions player. The frizzy-haired, fuzzy-bearded London Welsh loose forward known to his team-mates as Basil Brush also toured New Zealand in 1971. He played in all four Tests there as the Lions, captained by John Dawes, coached by Carwyn James and inspired by the prince of fly-halves, Barry John, secured a first series win in the southern hemisphere. As a British and Irish Lion, though, Taylor is remembered most of all for the tour he chose to miss.

That was the trip to South Africa in 1974. Taylor received an invitation to be part of the squad who became known as the Invincibles, who proceeded to score three Test wins and a draw against the Springboks. He politely declined, because, as he announced to the television cameras at the time: "Were I to play, I would be helping to condone and perpetuate a government of the sort that is in existence in South Africa."

The South African government was led by John Vorster, whose staunch prime ministerial support of the apartheid system, in the words of Nelson Mandela, "escalated the fight against freedom to new heights of repression". The fight against apartheid had already spilt into the sporting arena in Britain, Peter Hain having led campaigns to disrupt tours by the Springbok rugby union and cricket teams in 1969 and 1970. On the day the 1974 Lions were due to depart for South Africa, Hain led a group of 100 anti-apartheid demonstrators who invaded the Britannia Hotel at Heathrow. He appealed to Willie John McBride, the Lions captain, to abort the tour, but to no avail.

"I actually made my decision six years before that," Taylor reflects now. "I went on the '68 tour and the moment I got there I realised it was a mistake. I'd had misgivings but I was desperate to play. I was 22. I wanted to be a Lion. I put all the misgivings to the back of my mind, believed all the twaddle about building bridges and that we weren't supporting apartheid and as soon as I got there I realised very much that we were. So it was really when I came back from that tour that the decision was made. In fact, the really big decision was not to make myself available for Wales when the Springboks came over here in 1969-70. In '74 the Lions were going through the motions with the invitation letter because they knew what the answer was before they ever sent it out.

"But '74 was the big deal. I was absolutely convinced that the rest of the sporting world was right and that there was this sort of massive arrogance in rugby that the brotherhood of rugby, the fraternity of rugby, meant more than the brotherhood of man – that they couldn't be bad chaps because they played rugby. It was very much that sort of arrogance that I absolutely deplored in rugby. I had no doubts at all."

What was it that Taylor – in those days a school teacher, but now an all-round media man – witnessed in 1968 that persuaded him to make his principled stand? "Well, just everything was so much more stark and black and white than you could have ever imagined," he replies, applying ironic emphasis to the black and the white. "In fact, apartheid then was essentially being strengthened. The Group Areas Act [which divided towns and cities into areas for whites, coloureds, blacks and Indians] was coming into force. They were pretty much finding ways to push the blacks out of the specific areas that they wanted to. The District Six situation was starting to happen in Cape Town [some 60,000 blacks were forced out of their homes and relocated to the bleak Cape Flats township].

"The night before we left, the high commissioner or the ambassador said something to the effect of, 'Don't get involved in our politics; you won't understand them. But our rugby and our girls are great so go and enjoy them. And then, when we got out there and had our first night in a hotel in Stilfontein, a group of real Afrikaaners came to our hotel and, without any prompting from us, launched into an aggressive defensive of the apartheid system and how this was the only way to treat the blacks and so on and so forth. I thought, 'Bloody hell! What have I come into?'

"I was injured in the first game we played, against Western Province, and really wasn't fit again on the whole tour and I had an awful lot of time to see what was really going on in South Africa. I got left behind by myself in a couple of places to get treatment and you saw the real South Africa, as it was – not just the Lions' eye of it. It troubled me."

In 1995 Taylor was the ITV man in the commentary box when Nelson Mandela, resplendent in Springbok shirt, handed Francois Pienaar the Rugby World Cup trophy at Ellis Park in Johannesburg. The genial Welshman, now a sprightly 62-year-old, has become a regular visitor to South Africa. For the past 20 years he has been a hands-on patron of a rugby club at the Helenville township in the northern suburbs of Port Elizabeth. They call themselves the All Blacks.

"South Africa has changed enormously," Taylor reflects. "I was out there five weeks ago and the atmosphere at places like Loftus Versfeld now is just very, very different. I never thought I'd see a day when you had guys like Akona Ndungane and Chiliboy Ralepelle playing for a team like the Bulls. Not only playing for them but being cheered to the rafters." Which was not exactly the kind of response Taylor received after he made himself unavailable to play against the touring all-white Springboks in the winter of 1969-70.

"Wales said, 'We respect John's decision and it won't affect his rugby career'," he says, casting his mind back almost four decades. "But they left me out for four matches that season. Fortunately for me, Wales had a bad time of it that season and I was back in after that. But I was told very clearly that had I been English I would never have played international rugby again. It had all sorts of repercussions. One of them, which I was absolutely furious about, was not getting to play in the great Barbarians v New Zealand game in Cardiff in 1973 – the Gareth Edwards try and all that.

"The brief for the Barbarians was basically to recreate the Lions Test team from the '71 tour, when we'd beaten the All Blacks in New Zealand. I'd played in all the Tests down there and suddenly out comes the Baa-baas team and I wasn't in it. Mervyn Davies got flu on the Thursday before the game and John Dawes was asked who should come in and said, 'Well you've got to bring in JT. He should have been in the team in any case.' At which point Brigadier Glyn-Hughes, the Barbarians president, apparently exploded and said, 'He's not playing. The man's a Communist'.

"I never played for the Barbarians. After that everybody bar the Brigadier was deputed to try to get me to play for them and I said, 'No. Sod it. If that's the way you behave, then forget it'."

John Taylor laughs at the memory now. He might never have been a Barbarian but he was a truly noble Lion – perhaps the noblest of them all.

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