Adam Hathaway, rugby correspondent of The People, reports that Welsh colleagues paid a well-deserved tribute to a Lions legend last week and says Bristol could be in for the long haul.
Last Thursday, in Cardiff, the Welsh Rugby Writers’ Association held their annual dinner and it was the usual mix of catching up with old mates, having a…errrr few beers, a handful of speeches and the handing out of a few awards.
Our Welsh colleagues voted Toby Faletau as their Player of the Year and it would be hard to find anyone who disagreed with that. Rhys Webb, of the Ospreys, got a massive trophy, which was nearly as tall as him for being the best player on Judgement Day, when all the Welsh regions play on the same afternoon at the Millennium Stadium.
Carys Phillips, another Osprey, was Wales’ Women Player of the Year, Ronny Kynes of Ebbw Vale copped the Principality Player of the Year award and Ellis Jenkins of Cardiff Blues got the most promising/uncapped player gong.
Sharp-eyed readers will now pipe up and note Jenkins got three caps on Wales’ tour of New Zealand in the summer but the votes had shut by then, so yah boo to you.
But the highlight of the evening for those who were even alive when the British Lions last beat the All Blacks was for their skipper John Dawes finally being recognised and given the Lifetime Award. Many people would not recognise the brilliant captain and centre if he walked past them in the street – but the audience at the dinner recognised him straight away as he walked up on stage.
Yes, Dawes has got an OBE but he seemed genuinely touched to receive the prize from his brother-in-arms at London Welsh, Wales and the Lions – RugbySpy’s very own John Taylor – a full 45 years on from their greatest triumph. It was like seeing two old mates bumping into each in the pub.
Dawes is 76 now but to those of a certain age he will always be the stylish centre who captained the Lions heroes of 1971, who won the series in New Zealand, and helped make London Welsh one of the most powerful clubs in England. To the YouTube generation he is the bloke who sells the dummy in the lead-up to Gareth Edwards’ try for the Barbarians against the Kiwis in 1973 with Cliff Morgan’s brilliant commentary the soundtrack.
Sydney John Dawes, known in rugby as ‘Syd’, was the subject of a book which was subtitled ‘The Man who changed the face of Rugby’. The volume came out in 2013 but author Ross Reyburn had actually done most of the interviewing when Dawes was still playing at London Welsh, and lecturing at North London Polytechnic, so it has a contemporary feel to it.
Reyburn was a journalist with the Hampstead & Highgate Express at the time but some ridiculous short-sighted publishers binned the project. They wanted the now-too-common ghosted autobiography and not a third person tome. Luckily Reyburn kept his notes and what a story they tell of Wales and London Welsh triumphs.
But it is the Lions tour Dawes will be remembered for. As my colleague Barri Hurford, secretary of the WRWA, once wrote… “As a captain he was peerless; he was the quiet man who got things done. He was the man who made British rugby lose its inferiority complex.” The same inferiority complex that British rugby has had ever since, apart from a brief spell when England were number one, it has had ever since. But he had previous.
When Dawes pitched up at London Welsh in the 1960 they were struggling big-time but, in the amateur era when people had jobs, he made them the fittest side around. He attracted the likes of JPR, Gerald Davies and Taylor to the club and on the 1971 Lions’ tour they supplied seven players.
They were JPR, the two Davies – Gerald and Mervyn – Taylor, Mike Roberts, Geoff Evans and Dawes himself. Even then the Welsh Union were not that enamoured with a group of Welsh students, studying in England, and teachers who were being celebrated by English rugby and Dawes was in and out of the Welsh team and the suits took their time to come to their senses and make him captain.
In the late 1960s London Welsh were the glamour outfit in England. They had all the rock stars and won English championships, cups and even the Middlesex Sevens so the news they were facing a winding up order that broke on Friday was particularly poignant given the events of Thursday. As it happens, it looks like the club, who still have a John Dawes suite in their clubhouse, will survive that even if they are playing in the Championship nowadays.
Dawes could play alright and he coached Wales to a couple of Grand Slams in the 1970s when the likes of JPR and Gareth Edwards, more team mates from the 1971 success, were in the side. But his biggest achievement was changing the mental state of a group of players – along with coach Carwyn James – and making them believe they could beat the All Blacks. He never lost to England as a player or coach but your author can just about forgive him for that.
James was a genius – unrecognised by the Welsh Rugby Union – and his part in the Lions victory should never be understated, but Dawes was the captain and in those days captaincy was a much bigger job than it is now when you have a zillion analysts and coaches around.
As Reyburn says: “Reading what I wrote 40 years ago I probably underplayed the influence of Carwyn James in New Zealand. But in fairness, Carwyn wasn’t with Wales in 1971, nor was he at London Welsh for the decade when John transformed them into the most exciting club team in the world.
“London Welsh didn’t have seven British Lions when John Dawes pitched up 50 years ago, it was John’s approach to training and playing that ignited the club.”
The only black spot on Dawes CV came, ironically, against the All Blacks when he coached the Lions down there in1977. The tourists should have won that series but somehow came up short despite battering the Kiwis so much up front in the final Test, they resorted to three-man scrums to get the ball out quickly.
There was then a parting of the ways with the WRU and, unlike Edwards and the rest of team mates, Dawes drifted into relative obscurity. He did not get the TV gigs and even when he went back to New Zealand for the 2005 Lions tour he did it as a member of the London Welsh choir and not on some sponsors’ jolly.
Well on Thursday night he was back in the limelight, rightly so, and about time too. ‘The Man who changed the face of Rugby’ did that, and some, and it was good to see a smile back on his face last week.
Bristol were back in the big time at Twickenham on Saturday and despite their 21-19 defeat to Harlequins they look like they won’t be anyone’s whipping boys in the Premiership this season.
The papers have been loaded with league predictions and most of us had Andy Robinson’s side to at least be involved in a relegation fight or fall through the trapdoor.
Robinson had some gripes with the referee Luke Pearce, the conditions were shocking by the time the second game of the Double Header came on and Quins came out on top. But Robinson looks like he has got a team on his hands.
He has a couple of top-notchers in Jack Lam and Tusi Pisi, he has got a decent core of local players and Robinson is a decent coach. Throw in the billions of owner Steve Lansdown, who also owns Bristol City FC and the basketball outfit Bristol Flyers and they could be going somewhere and after seven years in the Championship they don’t fancy going down there again.
The club were once a powerhouse of English rugby supplying the likes of Richard Harding, Mike Rafter, John Pullin and Alan Morley to the national team – even the Bath legend Stuart Barnes started his English club career there.
In the not-too-distant past they have had international luminaries such as Gus Pichot, Jason Little and Felipe Contepomi on the books and at one time they were linked with Jonah Lomu. There are rumours flying about now that Ma’a Nonu, the double World Cup winner with New Zealand, might be on his way to Ashton Gate and with the financial clout of Lansdown you would not write that off – the owner is not used to coming second.
Bristol won’t come second in the Premiership this season but they look like they won’t be coming last either.