“It was, all were agreed, the zenith of their careers to be British Lions – members of the party that broke a losing run extending back to the beginning of the twentieth century.” Huw Richards meets the 1955 Welsh Lions.
What a pity Gareth Edwards could not be there. If he had, the ‘HSBC audience with the 1955 Welsh Lions’ at the Millennium Stadium would have featured 15 Lions who with a little adjustment – notably exiling Dr Jack Matthews to the wing position he loathed when playing for Wales – could have been fielded as an immensely formidable team.
This was perhaps the only way the event fell short of perfection for anyone with a taste for the game’s history, its old players and their anecdotes.
It took us all back to a different world, with the gentle promptings of another, younger Lion, John Taylor – who admitted to being himself a little awestruck to be in the company of men who were his childhood heroes – evoking the young vigorous men of more than half a century ago still present within the four veterans reminiscing about their parts in one of the greatest Lions tours.
You could see back rower Russell Robins cast as the ebullient joker against reserved straight man Courtenay Meredith, the steel industry engineer who applied his knowledge of stress and tension to the destruction of opposing scrummagers.
There was the twinkling warmth of versatile tour replacement Gareth Griffiths, who covered centre, wing and full-back, and the evident calm authority of hooker Bryn Meredith.
It was a time when players were told not to play after they had been chosen for the tour – a rule defied by both Bryn Meredith ‘Newport were on tour and I played as AN Other. My father was furious with me, asking what would have happened if I was injured’ and Robins, who turned out in a farewell match for John Manfield, a much-loved Welsh international who played before and after the Second World War.
The took us back to a time when a Lions party took a day and a half to get to South Africa by air – and thought it rapid because previous teams had gone by boat, even if Robins still has vivid memories of delays before take-off :”We got on the plane, got off again, got on again, got off again. I’d never been on a plane before in my life and was beginning to feel a bit nervous about it.”
Employers had to be asked to fund, or at least tolerate, several months off work and there were few perks for the touring player.
Robins recalled receiving a pair of shoes from Wimbledon bootmakers Law, while Bryn Meredith remembered the South African clothing manufacturer who offered every tourist a pair of trousers provided the team visited his factory to be photographed wearing them: “We did not make that visit.”
Players received an allowance of 5s (25p) per day spending money. Robins said ‘The big thing we had in common was that we were all skint’, while cheerfully admitting that a useful additional source of income was the sale of match tickets.
This, we were reminded, was the tour that gave rise to Lloyd’s Law, a fixed item of Lions custom and practice ever since, when Maesteg scrum-half Trevor Lloyd, aware of the formidable competition for female company likely to come from the likes of teenage heartthrob Tony O’Reilly, sought and received assurances that no Lion should move in on a girl being chatted up by a team-mate.
It was, recalled Griffiths: “Like being in a film, with myself as one of the actors. It was the holiday of a lifetime, lasting for four months”. As a holiday it had a strong element of busman’s about it – then a teacher, he remembers visiting schools on three or four days a week, taking part in staff planning meetings before the first bell sounded then talking to pupils about Wales or the Lions and meeting the rugby players: “and they all seemed to be rugby players.”
It would be a mistake to see this entirely as a time of innocence. South Africa was not yet the object of international revulsion it would become after the 1960 Sharpeville massacre, but Courtenay Meredith remembers: “We were very well briefed about apartheid by the Foreign Office and had some misgivings about going, but of course we wanted the experience of going on a Lions tour.”
It was also an age when a player might have to play on in a Test after splitting his tongue – as Courtenay Meredith did: “I was throwing blood up, but you couldn’t leave the field as there were no replacements and you’d be leaving your team with 14 men.”
There was, though, no sense of pressure from the Lions previous history of failures – Robins said, “all we were concerned about was playing a decent game of rugby and enjoying ourselves” – perhaps because there were only three journalists accompanying the party.
It was, all were agreed, the zenith of their careers to be British Lions – members of the party that broke a losing run extending back to the beginning of the twentieth century by drawing the Test series 2-2 and playing rugby whose brilliance is remembered to this day.
Had there been a toast to conclude the proceedings there can be little doubt it would have been to ‘absent friends’ – and to one in particular, Cliff Morgan.
Not well enough to travel from his home on the Isle of Wight, he was nevertheless present both through a letter of apology that showed that a mind with a poet’s eye for the right word and the perfect phrase is still in excellent shape, and in the appreciation of his erstwhile team-mates who recalled his teaching them Afrikaans song Sarie Marais, so they could sing it while descending the stairs of the aircraft on landing at Johannesburg Airport and, in Russell Robins words ‘as our real leader, on and off the field’.
Those attending were (in playing formation)
15 J.P.R Williams (1971 and 1974 Lions)
14 Jack Matthews (1950)
13 Bleddyn Williams (1950)
12 John Dawes (1971)
11 Gareth Griffiths (1955)
10 David Watkins (1966)
9 A.N. Other
8 Mervyn Davies (1971 and 1974)
7 John Taylor ( 1968 and1971)
6 Russell Robins (1955)
5 Bob Norster (1989)
4 Geoff Evans (1971)
3 Courtenay Meredith (1955)
2 Bryn Meredith (1955, 1959 and 1962)
1 Graham Price (1977, 1980 and 1983)
Picture: Back Row L-R, Jack Matthews (1950), David Watkins (1966), Bleddyn Williams (1950), Geoff Evans (1971), Rob Norster (1983, ’89), Mervyn Davies (1971, ’74), JPR Williams (1971, ’74), John Taylor (1968, ’71), Graham Price (1977, ’80, ’83) and John Dawes (1971) Front Row, Russell Robins (1955), Gareth Griffiths (1955), Bryn Meredith (1955, ’59, ’62) and Courtenay Meredith (1955)
THE 1955 BRTISH & IRISH LIONS
Irish second row Robin Thompson was the tour captain and Scottish full back Angus Cameron the vice-captain.
Tour Manager Jack Siggins decided that he needed a young and lively side to take to South Africa and initially wanted his fellow selectors to disregard and players over the age of 27. In the end, only one player over the age of 30 – Maesteg scrum half Trevor Lloyd – was included in the tour party.
They drew the Test series 2-2, winning the first and third internationals.
Their final tour record was:
P25 W19 D1 L5
Points For 457 Points Agst 283
Tries For 103 Tries Agst 34
750,000 fans paid more than half-a-million pounds to watch the 25 games in South Africa.
They arrived at Jan Smuts Airport on 11 July and didn’t leave Nairobi until 29 September, arriving home on 30 September.
They travelled 25,000 miles from start to finish on their tour.
Among the many tributes paid to the 1955 Lions were the following:
HW ‘Paddy’ Carolin, the 1906 Springbok half-back and vice-captain, wrote in the Cape Argus: “As a 10-year-old I watch Bill Maclagan’s team give us our first lesson in rugby at Newlands in 1891. Since then I have been fortunate enough to have watched every international touring side which has visited these shores . . . i have no hestiation in saying that, in my opinion, the 1955 British isles teams in the srtongest of all.”
Dannie Craven, who was chairman of selectors for the 1955 Sprigboks, offered a similar view: “They are the strongest touring side I have ever seen in South Africa. Their back play is a treat to watch.”
Newport and Wales hooker Bryn Meredith and Northampton and England scrum half Reg Jeeps became the first Lions to play on three successive tours when they followed their exploits in South Africa in 1955 with trips to Australasia in 1959 and South Africa again in 1962
Bryn was part of an all-Welsh front row that played throughout the four Test series in 1955. He was the hooker and had Swansea’s Billy Williams and Neath’s Courtenay Meredith as his props.
The three played together for the Lions seven times – winning four, losing three. They played in the opening game (loss to Western Transvaal, game 4 win over Orange Free State, Game 11 win over Rhodesia, Game 13 win in the 1st test, game 17 loss in 2nd Test, Game 20 win in 3rd Test and Game 24 loss in 4th Test).
The front row played nine times together for Wales, winning seven times. Their combined record for Wales and the Lions in internationals is P13 W9 L4.
Billy and Courtenay propped up the Welsh scrum on 12 occasions.
On only one other occasion since World War 11have the Lions selected a front row unit from the same country to start a Test match. It was the 3rd Test in South Africa in 1968 when England provided Mike Coulman, John Pullin and Tony Horton to the pack
Billy Williams played 17of the 25 tour games, Bryn Meredith 15 and Courtenay Meredith 14.
Two other Welsh forwards figured in all four Tests with the front row – Llanelli lock Rhys Williams and Pontypridd back row man Russ Robins. Robins played in 17 games on tour and Williams 16.
The “Famous Five” also played three internationals for Wales in the same pack prior to the tour and then one more in 1956 post-South Africa, making it an amazing eight Tests in a row. They won five of them.
In the four Tests in 1955 there were 6 Welshmen in the 1st, 7 in the 2nd, 8 in the 3rd and 8 in the 4th. Cliff Morgan captained the side to victory in Pretoria in the third Test and Billy Williams led the pack.
Bryn Meredith played in 43 matches for the Lions on his three tours, including eight Tests. The only other Welshman to play more games for the Lions is Llanelli’s Delme Thomas, who played 43 times on three tours ? 1966, 1968 and 1971.
Gareth Edwards played 39 times on three tours and Rhys Williams 38 on two.
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