John Dawes flew back to London from Paris on Sunday, March 28, 1971 for what the rugby world expected to be his anointment as the first Welshman to captain the Lions.
Instead it turned out to be the longest day of his life, waiting for white smoke to billow from the chimney of the East India Club where the Four Home Unions had gone into conclave to pick the 30 players and their leader.
Despite returning with a Grand Slam for ensuring Wales navigated their way round the Stade Colombes the previous day, Dawes refused to believe from the outset that he would get the job. His uncertainty grew with each passing hour.
Former Wales and Lions star John Dawes died on Friday at the age of 80 after long illness
The Welshman captain and coached his country to Grand Slam glory in a glittering career
‘I must have had what seemed like 10,000 phone calls that day from people asking whether I’d heard anything,’ he said. ‘As time went by, I prepared myself for the worst. I was 30 years of age and I’d almost convinced myself they had picked someone else.’
Sunday had turned into Monday before he got the call from tour manager Doug Smith asking, in the quaint old-fashioned way, whether he would be prepared to accept their invitation to captain the Lions.
For Dawes, ‘Syd’ to his team-mates, the ultimate reward came with the ultimate challenge — winning a Test series in New Zealand.
Before the end of that glorious summer half a century ago, the schoolteacher from the old ironworks town of Abercarn took the Lions where they had never gone before and have never been since. They beat the All Blacks in their own backyard over a four-Test series and they did it, what’s more, in the grand manner.
As a teenager Dawes used his hilly surroundings to go running every day to build his fitness
Dawes, who died on Friday at the age of 80 after a lengthy illness, had made the most improbable of journeys from a slagheap in his valley to scaling Everest and every other European summit along the way.
As a teenager in the 1950s, his imagination had been fired by the Australian miler Herb Elliott’s punishing routine of running up and down sand dunes. Dawes, surrounded by slagheaps in his corner of the south Wales coalfield, made do with the steepest one he could find.
‘There was a tip between Newbridge and Abercarn which was so steep that every time I got to the top my legs felt so weak I had no control over them,’ he recalled years later. ‘I’d go up and down 10 times at a stretch and go home looking as if I’d spent the day at the coalface.
‘I suppose I was lucky because there were no distractions — no tennis courts, no golf ranges, no swimming pools. I ran every day because Herb Elliott inspired me. Reading about him, I learnt the importance of what it means to be really fit.’
His innate gift for tactics made him a superb player, captain and coach throughout his career
Dawes may have lacked pace but the gods blessed him with supreme passing skills and, just as importantly, an innate gift for strategy and tactics which explained why, more often than not, his teams outwitted their opponents.
He made his Test debut in 1964, by which time his London Welsh team had begun to play an exhilarating brand of rugby. Wales and the Lions followed suit, all three revolving around the same midfield general.
As captain and later coach, Dawes never gave the slightest impression of being flustered. Sir Gareth Edwards remembered him as ‘always being calmness personified amid the chaos of the Test arena’.
‘People don’t understand how valuable it is to have someone like that on your side, someone who can see the bigger picture and calm everyone down,’ said Edwards.
‘John was a fantastic captain and a great coach, one of the giant figures of Welsh rugby of any era. He wasn’t the fastest player or the most elusive but everyone around him benefitted from his great skill and distribution.’
Sir Gareth Edwards paid tribute to Dawes as ‘one of the giant figures of Welsh rugby of any era’
Style was important to Dawes, without ever blinding him to the basic principle of winning Test rugby. He could be pragmatic when the occasion demanded, never more so than immediately before the final match of the 1970 Five Nations, France in Cardiff.
A win would give Wales a share of the title. Phil Bennett, a late replacement for the injured Barry John, tells of how incessant rain had forced Dawes into a late tactical overhaul: ‘About an hour before kick-off he said, “Just kick the ball into the corner. Their backs are faster than ours but that’s the way we’re going to win the game”. We did — 11-6.’
London Welsh described his passing as ‘a seismic loss to the London Welsh family as well as the entire rugby community across the world. We will remember one of the true greats of all time and one of our own’.
After winning more Grand Slams as Wales head coach, Dawes returned to New Zealand in that capacity with the Lions, losing the 1977 series 3-1 at the end of a tour in stark contrast to the triumphant one six years earlier.
That his death should have taken place within a week or two of the 50th anniversary of the day he took off on the greatest adventure of all adds greater poignancy to his passing
The 1977 Lions tour was not as successful as the historic series against the All Blacks in 1971