With the British & Irish Lions desperately needing attacking aces to upset the All Blacks this summer, they could do with someone like John Bentley as the joker in their pack.
The irrepressible Yorkshireman was one of the stars of the show in 1997, when Ian McGeechan’s band of brothers stunned the then reigning world champions South Africa 2-1.
Immortalised in the incomparable ‘Living with Lions’ documentary, Bentley produced comedy gold off the pitch — especially with video camera in hand — and sprinkled stardust on it.
He scored seven tries on the triumphant, 13-game tour, the finest of which was his dazzling solo effort 20 years ago against Gauteng Lions. It remains one of the greatest individual tries in Lions history.
Picking up the ball 60 metres out, the former rugby league winger evaded two tackles on the wide right, shimmied inside to give three more defenders the slip before finishing off under the posts.
“I remember it all,” Bentley, now 50, told ESPN. “The first bit — the strength of my game has always been broken field play — it was a kick reception that Neil Jenkins fielded. Before he even picked the ball up, I’d looked up and there was a hooker and back-row forward in front of me and there was some space outside.
“I called for it before he’d [Jenkins] picked it up and obviously he threw it to me straight away and moved the focus. The first bit was planned and thereafter, there was a kid covering me and I stepped inside. It’s ironic, really, as the kid who I stepped inside was a fly-half and he slipped on the floor and he ended up tackling me under the posts and he was a lot faster than me, so I don’t think I’d have made it if I’d gone to the corner.
“It’s broken-field running, really. The first bit was planned, while the second bit was find the space.”
John Bentley goes past Percy Montgomery of the Emerging Springboks during the 1997 Lions Tour. David Rogers /Allsport
Bentley jokes that he could have passed to Jeremy Guscott, who would go on to seal the Lions’ series victory over the Springboks with a dramatic, late drop goal in the 18-15 second Test win.
“But I thought: ‘No way is he going to be the star’,” he adds, with a chuckle of his 67th-minute flourish, which helped the Lions triumph 20-14.
“He’d have his time later on in the tour. He sulked with me afterwards and said I should have passed. He nearly tripped me up, actually. That was my moment.”
Did Bentley, who also played for England in the 1995 Rugby League World Cup, score a better try?
“I will definitely say it’s had the biggest impact on my career and life, without a doubt. I think [fellow 1997 heroes and ex-rugby league players] Alan Tait or Scott Gibbs, one of them said: ‘I don’t know what the fuss is all about. He scores them all the time playing rugby league’.
“I’ve gone [the] full length [of the field] and beaten lots of players previously. That was the one on the stage which has had the biggest impact.
“It changed my life, really. Everyone talks about the one try. My wife says: ‘You went on one tour, scored one try and you’ve got one speech. Get over yourself’. But I scored seven actually, but that’s the only one that people talk about, which is nice.
“The nice thing is people ask me do I talk about it? I don’t need to. People mention it to me. I’m very fortunate.”
Bentley’s brilliant intervention was timely given that his Test place was in jeopardy after he “played poorly” in the 35-30 defeat to Northern Transvaal four days previously. The normally ebullient Bentley says he “locked myself away for two or three days afterwards” in brooding introspection — and then resolved to “put up and shut up”.
The arch funny man knew he had to get serious if he was to justify his surprise selection on the tour, after only returning to union the previous September following a nine-year spell in league.
“I wasn’t there just to make everyone smile and laugh with the pranks. I was there to play rugby. I let myself down on the Saturday, so it was a case of showing up and doing what I was there to do, which was performing on the field, not off it.”
John Bentley holds the trophy aloft in front of Lions supporters after the third test match against South Africa at Ellis Park in Johannesburg. South Africa won the match 35-16 but the Lions won the series 2-1. David Rogers /Allsport
Bentley’s bravura performance earned him a starting spot in the team for the second and third Tests. It was, he admits, a “remarkable” outcome on a fairytale tour for “a northern monkey”, who went from ‘John who?’ at the start of the tour to become a Lions legend.
“The fact that they [South Africa] were the current world champions, they gave us no chance,” adds Bentley, who now works as the business development manager for Championship side Yorkshire Carnegie.
“Absolutely no chance. I don’t think many people back home gave us much chance, either.”
The current British & Irish Lions face a similarly gargantuan task this summer against the All Blacks, but Bentley cannot foresee Warren Gatland’s side repeating history.
“If you were betting it on your life, you’d be struggling to offer the Lions a Test win,” he says, before quipping that the only time the All Blacks are vulnerable is “during the haka”.
Despite his grim prediction, however, Bentley remains hopeful that one Lion will bequeath to the tourists’ legions of fans a moment of comparable magic to his own.
“You need a bit of fire, a bit of inspiration. There will be a special moment for somebody. I don’t know who it will be.”
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