The Invincibles

During last year’s World Cup, a unique gathering took place in Paris of the great names to have graced the British and Irish lions jersey during the 1950s. Brought together for a special reunion by legendary Irish international Tony O’Reilly, IRN was their to relive their golden moments with them

By Peter Bills

Welshman Bryn Meredith said words alone could hardly describe the experience; he had never had a weekend like it. Ireland’s Cecil Pedlow renamed Paris’s elegant Plaza Athenee ‘Le Hotel Sourire’ because everyone was smiling. They even re-named the hotel’s Marie Antoinette room, ‘The Clubhouse’.

And then, 1959 Lions and Welsh full-back Terry Davies told a story that somehow epitomised the wit and the wonder of these vintage Lions and their host, specially brought together for a reunion in Paris at the climax of the 2007 Rugby World Cup.

“We were playing in Greymouth, a suitably named town on the west coast of New Zealand’s south island” recalled Davies. “Imagine being a visiting team in New Zealand in those days. You didn’t have a supporter in sight, no-one there was cheering for you. The (local) referee had more cheers coming onto the field.”

Maybe not surprisingly, the Lions found life tough at the hands of the local official. They had what seemed two perfectly good tries disallowed and things were beginning to become fraught. It was the perfect moment for a flash of inspiration and wit from the Lions’ Irish wing, a certain A.J.F. O’Reilly.

Davies went on “The local team kicked the ball 50 yards downfield and it fell into O’Reilly’s hands. Off he went. He side-stepped past four men, seemed to be cornered on the right touchline but sidestepped out of that, too. Ray Prosser, our prop forward from Pontypool, complained later that O’Reilly had passed him twice and sidestepped him once!

“Eventually, O’Reilly shot in under the posts. He waited for the referee to run up, touched the ball down and said, with an impish sort of grin, ‘I nearly scored that time’!

Terry Davies recounted the story surrounded by his friends. For on the weekend of the World Cup final, wherever you looked, you saw a whole generation of venerable Lions transformed magically to the days of their youth.

The passing years? Brushed away with scornful disdain. The hip and knee replacement operations? Mere memories, even for former England lock David Marques whom, it was rumoured, had had both hips and both knees done. “He was walking around like a ballet dancer,” smiled Pedlow.

But here is the strange thing. Brought together and hosted by Sir Anthony O’Reilly for this unique meeting of old friends, the initial reserve of the men from those three Lions tours of the 1950s seemed to disappear as rapidly as the foie gras. “It was great fun, a wonderful occasion” joked Pedlow. “We could find out who’d had the most operations since we last met.”

They dutifully raised a sad glass to their 1950 Lions chum, Scot Peter Kininmonth, who had been forced to cry off the trip due to unexpected selection higher up. At 83, Kininmonth had even been measured for his ‘Invincible Lions’ blazer. Alas, he never shared what would have been one of the happiest times of his life.
Bryn Meredith eventually came up with perhaps the quintessential thought of such an occasion. “It was so nice to see friends we had not met for perhaps 25 years. And the marvellous thing was, you carried on as though you had seen them yesterday. That was the lovely part of it. I can only associate that with rugby.

“We are fortunate to be around during Tony O’Reilly’s lifetime. A lot of people could have done this, albeit not in such circumstances and style. But only Tony did it. We owe him a deep gratitude.”

Correct, for as Meredith said, they were entertained like royalty. Being accommodated at the Plaza Athenee or the Bristol hotels, is not a shabby experience. “If you travel with Tony O’Reilly, you travel first class and this was first class elegance. There wasn’t a single hiccup anywhere the whole weekend” said Meredith.

And the stories just kept coming. Cecil Pedlow spied the great Bleddyn Williams, Welsh centre par excellence, across the room. “I played against Bleddyn in my first international in 1953. It was the last game Wales played at Swansea and the mud was shin deep. The ball was booted up the middle of the field, I got back, picked it up and tried to drop a goal from about 50 metres. I thought I’d try and win the game on my first appearance. But the ball was so wet, it slewed right off the side of my boot. Happily, however, it stopped just short of the Welsh line in the right corner.”

It was a terrible drop at goal but a miraculously placed kick. Irish wing Seamus Byrne raced up to collect the loose ball and dive over for Ireland’s only score. And, apropos nothing, Pedlow added “I saw Seamus some years later in the unlikeliest of surroundings. By then, he was working as a porter at King’s Cross station, in London.”
As you do.

Meanwhile, David Marques was peering over a plate of fruit as he used to look down on smaller opponents at line-outs in the 1950s and 1960s for Harlequins, Cambridge University, England and the 1959 Lions. He is forever remembered in Lions folklore as the man who stepped off the aeroplane in Darwin’s brutal heat at the start of the 1959 tour, resplendent in shirt and tie, jacket, raincoat and bowler hat, carrying a rolled up City of London type umbrella. This was the splendid, indefatigable English stepping out into the Colonies.

And Marques’ family history is as colourful a tale. “I had an Australian father and Welsh mother. My father came to England originally via Gallipoli.”

That was definitely not the route to take in those times. But Marques Snr. Somehow survived and the child he and his Welsh wife created chose England because he grew up there. And the famous bowler hat ? “We played against Australia and Nick (now Sir Nicholas) Shehadie, who became the first man to play for the Barbarians against the Wallabies. At the end of that tour, I presented him with my bowler hat and it is now in an Australian museum.”

Which is where, if you accept Marques at his word, he should be! “I’m only an old fart” he said, dismissing himself airily. “I hate the professional attitude in the game today. The skill levels are better but loyalty has gone out of the door.” And with that, he returned to the pursuit of fruit.

Little Irish flanker Jim McCarthy played in Ireland’s only ever Grand Slam side, the 1948 vintage. O’Reilly long ago dubbed him “Jack Kyle’s out rider”, a lovely description of the openside flanker. But what did McCarthy think of the present Irish team’s failings at this World Cup?

“They thought they had the whole thing won before they started” he said, in that soft, lilting accent. “When they sit down and think about it, they will realise that was it. I was very surprised to see England get as far as the final but delighted for Brian Ashton. They were sneering at him after the 36-0 loss to South Africa early on.”

Across the room sat arguably the finest centre pairing Wales has ever produced: Jack Matthews and Bleddyn Williams. Indeed, many insist that if Williams had toured South Africa in 1955, the Lions would have won that series.
Williams recalled his time playing alongside Matthews. “A pleasure, a delight” he said. “Jack was such a good player.” But of course Bleddyn himself, the epitome of modesty, wasn’t… That old Welsh law firm of Meredith, Meredith & Williams was again on parade.

They formed the Lions front row in South Africa in 1955 and picked up the nickname during that tour. Behind them, like a good No. 8 in position, was Russell Robins, the tough Welsh back row forward.

What did he think of the World Cup? “It’s been an ordinary tournament, to tell the truth. And I think they have got to change the laws, they need to re-construct the game. I would ban all these dummy runners; to me, what they are doing is clear obstruction. And I would also get rid of the rolling maul.

“But I don’t mind lifting in the line-outs because that has quickened up the game. They were a terrible mess.”
Ken Scotland, of Cambridge University, Scotland and the Lions, was on the 1959 tour to New Zealand. Together with his wife Doreen, he glanced up at old films being shown in the team’s luncheon room of the great games of those days and joked, “They’re showing old films of Keystone Cops playing!”

What did Scotland remember of those times ? “Principally, the fun we had and the friends that we made for the rest of our lives. That was the big thing about touring, everybody became a personal friend. To meet some of those guys almost 50 years later might seem strange to outsiders but for us it is like we have never been away.”

Scotland of Scotland recalled the emotions of that 1959 Lions tour, when they were beaten by Don Clarke’s six penalty goals in the first Test despite scoring four tries to nil. “I remember the sense of real depression at losing that first Test. But then there was the euphoria of winning the fourth Test. Those memories still linger.

“But the thing was, we had a different philosophy about place kicking in those days. Basically, whoever was nearest the ball or who shouted loudest would have taken the kicks at goal. And the fact is, if we had kicked our goals we would have won that 1st Test. We should have taken a specialist kicker.”

So complaints and lingering angst ? Ken Scotland suddenly wore a bewildered expression. “No, they were great days and they gave us absolutely marvellous memories. Nostalgia will get the better of us eventually.”

Welsh full-back Terry Davies still remembers the excitement of an adventure that took him from the little Welsh mining village of Brynea, near Llanelli, all the way across the world to Australia and New Zealand. “I was a village boy and suddenly found myself living a 5* life on the other side of the world. No-one understood what it meant when I got home, for people didn’t travel in those days. But it was my education in life.”
Davies can remember sitting by O’Reilly in the team bus as they journeyed across New Zealand to their next venue. Most players would be reading, perhaps singing or just sleeping. O’Reilly, who was preparing for his law exams during the tour, was speed reading highly intricate law books. Davies was fascinated.

“Coming from my background in the valleys, it was an extraordinary sight to see him doing that. But then, as now, he was always modest. He is a magnificent man and I admire him greatly not just for his work for charity but because he shares his wealth with good friends.”

Englishman Dickie Jeeps was so fine a player that he won selection for all four Lions Test matches on their 1955 tour of South Africa before he even played a single game for England. Was Jeeps proud of that?

“Not as proud as the fact that I am now wearing the same size blazer I had in 1955” he smiled. He went to New Zealand in 1959, too, with the Lions but had no doubts as to his favourite tour. “South Africa I enjoyed most. In 1955, it was my first tour and we had some wonderful backs. Tony O’Reilly was so quick on that tour; he just had another gear compared to most players. He was a hell of a good player.”

And what of O’Reilly himself, the man who made possible the whole reunion? He entertained them regally, his hospitality legendary. Typically, he found the perfect phrase to sum it all up.

“This was a resurrection of Biblical proportions” he smiled. “There was an initial shyness when we first came together again but then the recollections took over. The extraordinary thing was, it was as though 50 years had not elapsed. It was like people had just walked back into the changing room, having played a game or just been on a training run. They were extraordinarily at ease with each other; that was the surprising thing. In a curious way they didn’t seem to have changed much over the 50 years. They seemed to be the way you remembered them.”

And for O’Reilly, the whole camaraderie, the old friendships revived and times re-lived, simply underlined the entire democracy and good fellowship of the old amateur game. As he sighed a touch sadly, it is hard to envisage such a gathering 50 years from now of another Lions’ era.

The climax for this unique coming together of the surviving members of the 1950, 1955 and 1959 Lions was dinner on the night of the World Cup final. They began at 1am and some were still going strongly at 0430. Old men ? Well, that didn’t matter anymore. For the years fell off them as the stories unfolded. Faces lined by the passing times assumed the lightness of youth. Energy tanks were restored to the days of yore.

Jack Kyle, now a sprightly 83, spoke movingly and beautifully at the final dinner. Anne Risman, wife of 1959 Lion Bev, spoke for the ladies. O’Reilly addressed his guests.

And the Irishman offered a beguiling image of the whole reunion and the emotions it stirred in these fine, now elderly men. “If we had been issued with kit bags and there had been a bus waiting outside, I suspect we would all have filed out of the room and gone off on tour again.”

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