The Lions in 1950 - five shillings and a song

The post-war boys were coachless and away for six months. Tim Glover recalls a different world
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The Independent Online

They received an allowance of five shillings a day (25p in today's currency) and free cigarettes. They were away for more than six months and failed to win a Test, but by all accounts they had the time of their lives. Wherever they played in the North and South Islands, the 1950 Lions to New Zealand were greeted like long-lost sons.

They received an allowance of five shillings a day (25p in today's currency) and free cigarettes. They were away for more than six months and failed to win a Test, but by all accounts they had the time of their lives. Wherever they played in the North and South Islands, the 1950 Lions to New Zealand were greeted like long-lost sons.

When they sailed out of Liverpool there was one supporter waving them off, Bob Oakes of the Hartlepool Rovers club. "When we arrived in New Zealand we had a terrific reception from thousands of people,'' Malcolm Thomas said. "It was the first Lions visit there since 1930. There'd been rationing at home but there you could eat as much meat, eggs, butter and chocolate as you liked.''

Malcolm Campbell Thomas was born in 1929, the year that the land-speed world record was broken, and he owes his Christian names to the man behind the wheel. Thomas learned his rugby at Bassaleg School in Newport, and by 16 was such an impressive centre he had played for the Newport senior side. From teacher's training at Caerleon College he joined the Navy, winning his first cap for Wales at 19, and a year later he was selected for the Lions tour to New Zealand and Australia.

"We were somewhere in the Pacific when I celebrated my 21st birthday," he said. "It was a memorable evening apart from the fact that I got seasick and had to retire to my cabin.''

The Lions party (they played more than 30 matches) consisted of 31 players under the captaincy of the Irish hooker Karl Mullen. The manager was a Royal Navy surgeon, Ginger Osborne, who had an assistant, and that was about it.

Fifty-five years ago it was not just a different age but a different world. The 2005 tour has 45 players and a back-up squad approaching 30 including a chef, a lawyer, two doctors and 10 coaches. Clive Woodward's Lions will play 11 matches and be away for six weeks rather than six months. With every player on a minimum of £20,000, it will cost an arm and a leg.

"If I was chosen to go on this tour I'd have to think twice,'' Thomas said. "With so many players and so few matches you have to wonder what they're going to do with their time. It's not a criticism, just an observation. My interest hasn't abated, and I'll watch the tour on TV.''

The 1950 Lions drew the First Test against the All Blacks 9-9, lost the second 8-0, the third 6-3 and the fourth and last 11-8. In Australia, they played two Tests and won both. "I missed the First Test in New Zealand after being thumped against Otago,'' Thomas said. "I was hit from behind so hard I was out for a fortnight. I found out who did it. But I'm not going to name him. I think I was chosen because I was the goal-kicker. It was a very tight series. Their forwards were much rougher than ours, and that's where we lost it. The All Blacks had nothing to compare with our threequarters.''

The back line read like a Who's Who, with Lewis Jones, Ken Jones, Bleddyn Williams, Jack Matthews, Jackie Kyle and Rex Willis. Last week Thomas, who is 76 and one of a dozen survivors from the tour, attended a preview of the screening of a DVD of the adventure at the Rugby Museum at Twickenham. It is called The Singing Lions.

"Wherever we went we invariably sang for our supper,'' Thomas said. "We may not have won a Test [in New Zealand] but it was regarded as a very successful tour. The whole thing was character- building. We went out through the Panama Canal and came back through the Suez Canal, and we stopped off at Bombay for dinner.''

Thomas, a successful businessman who now lives in Beaconsfield, captained Devonport Services, the Navy and Newport. He also played cricket for Cornwall, once scoring 50 against Surrey at The Oval. A broken leg prevented him from touring South Africa with the Lions in 1955, but he revisited New Zealand four years later under the captaincy of another Irish hooker, Ronnie Dawson. They lost 3-1.

"In 1950 the Tour made a profit of £90,000 and in 1959 it was £350,000,'' Thomas said. "I dread to think of the sums involved today.''

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