Paris the perfect setting for reunion of 'Invincible Lions'

Some of the greatest names in rugby are gathering for a very special celebration. Peter Bills reports
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The Independent Online

They are going to step out for one last hurrah, a little more gently than they once did as a concession to the passing years. They're calling themselves "The Invincible Lions" and for a very good reason. This group of Lions never lost a game because they never collectively played a Test.

So the legendary rugby touring party's oldest and, some say, finest, more than 30 British and Irish Lions from the Fifties are gathering in Paris this week and next (some for the semi-finals, all for the final) resplendent in their specially-made navy blue blazers with the unique crest "Lions 2007" to see the climax to the Rugby World Cup – and to relive their own memories.

And what tales they have to tell. The lean, supreme bodies may have gone, but there will never again be a meeting of this ilk, the remaining Lions from arguably their finest era.

They made three tours in the 1950s: to New Zealand and Australia in 1950 and 1959, and South Africa in 1955. Australia were beaten 2-0 on each occasion, but the All Blacks won the 1950 tour 3-0 (with one drawn Test) and the 1959 tour 3-1. The South African tour was drawn 2-2.

But when were men's finest hours defined solely by the ultimate outcome? What of their spirit, individual acts of supreme courage and bravery? What of their honesty, the way in which they represented their countries and enhanced the great values of their sport? Such qualities are the bedrock of the game, and the Lions of the Fifties were the epitome of those values. They defined their generation.

Ronnie Dawson and Dickie Jeeps of England will mull over the infamous first Test of the 1959 tour, when New Zealand were outscored by four tries to nil, yet won the match through Don Clarke's six penalty goals. Syd Millar, now chairman of the International Rugby Board marked Sir Wilson Whineray, and still maintains that the Lions should have won. (In today's scoring, the Lions would have won 22-18.)

What memories the great Jack Kyle, Bleddyn Williams and Jack Matthews can exchange of the 1950 tour to New Zealand. They sailed away on a month-long sea passage, then encountered a rugby more brutal than any they had known. Yet they wove such magical paths, skipped and side-stepped for the delectation of the hundreds of thousands who saw them play. Many swore this was the Lions' finest hour.

Perhaps it was, until 1955 when South Africa was engulfed and emotionally moved as never before by the presence of an overseas touring team. This was Morgan's Tour – his extraordinary gift and the brilliance of a back-line that read Dickie Jeeps, Cliff Morgan, W.P.C. Davies and Tony O'Reilly will be remembered in South Africa for as long as rugby is played.

And when their tour was done, bruises blackening but friendships established for life, one South African commentator wrote: "South Africa owes a manifold debt to the British Isles rugby touring team. They have rescued our rugby from becoming a matter merely of boot and brawn."

But amidst the festivities there will be sadness. Peter Kininmonth, the former Scotland and 1950 Lion No 8, was responsible for helping to arrange the special blazers the party will wear, a fine role for an 83-year-old. And Kininmonth was so looking forward to the trip. The host for this formidable reunion is Sir Anthony O'Reilly, now 71 but still a great lover of the game. Kininmonth said of him just last week: "He has well thought out views on the game and the structure and how it should be played in the future."

Alas, in the early hours of last Friday morning, at his home in Dorset, Kininmonth died in his sleep. O'Reilly was said to be devastated. J.S. McCarthy, perhaps Ireland's greatest ever open side and a member of Ireland's only Grand Slam team of 1948, was a particular good friend of Peter Kininmonth's. As O'Reilly said: "They were like 'The Odd Couple', Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon, inseparable and enormous fun."

But the class of 2007 still contains some of the greatest names in British and Irish rugby history – and you can be sure they will raise a fine glass to "Absent friends".

Fifties' finest: The 2007 Lions party

Full-backs:

Kenneth Scotland (Scotland), Terry Davies (Wales).

Wings:

Frank Sykes, John Young (both England), Niall Brophy, Cecil Pedlow, Tony O'Reilly (all Ireland), Haydn Morris (Wales).

Centres:

Jack Matthews, Bleddyn Williams (both Wales), Phil Davies (England), David Hewitt (Ireland).

Out-halves:

Jack Kyle, Mick English (both Ireland), Cliff Morgan (Wales), Bev Risman (England).

Scrum-half:

Dickie Jeeps (England).

Front rows:

Bryn Meredith, Courtney Meredith, Billy Williams (all Wales), Hugh McLeod (Scotland), Ronnie Dawson, Syd Millar, Ray McLaughlin (all Ireland).

Second Rows:

William Mulcahy (Ireland),

David Marques (England).

Back rows:

Jim McCarthy, Noel Murphy (Ireland), John Faull, Russell Robins (both Wales), Ken Smith (Scotland).

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