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23 October 2014
Finding an old photograph of Fiji's national rugby team coming out to play Phil Bennett's 1977 Lions in Suva has brought back many memories of being at the ground that day on August 16 1977. [Click on 'Favourite Photos' on this page] Myself and Nigel Starmer-Smith of the BBC were the only broadcasters there that day. We were positioned high up on the most rickety scaffolding you ever saw. We were both frightened a number of times when it swayed noticably when the wind gusts blew in off the nearby sea.
[One other point about the broadcasts I can recall is that we could hear from our high tower position the raised and excitable voice below of the local radio-man Graham Eden. Our producer Fred Szydlik remarked memorably that 'the Fiji people didn't need a transmitter to hear Graham's call; there's no doubt he could be heard miles away!' Graham has become a good friend over the years. We still see each other regularly on the road and remind ourselves of that great day.]
For a complete ego trip; here is what I wrote about the Fiji v British Isles game in my book of that tour; the un-memorably named - 'Lions '77' The book recorded a tough tour conducted by the Lions in mostly wet and muddy conditions with the Lions growing increasingly sad as their hopes of beating the Tane Norton-led All Blacks diminished by the week.
One place the 1977 Lions did really enjoy was Fiji. The relief of getting out of New Zealand, plus the warmth and welcome of the Fijian people (and of course the sunshine) convinced the team that this was the most enjoyable stop of the tour. 'This is the life,' said Charlie Faulkner relaxing beside the hotel pool, 'next time the Lions come down under they should play 26 games in Fiji and one in New Zealand!' That was said in Faulkner's nicest manner, for he was one who was reluctant to head home, his three weeks on tour (as a replacement) clearing giving him a taste for more.
There was a good deal of light-hearted banter as to who would play the game against Fiji. 'It'll be the first fifteen names out of the hat,' coach John Dawes joked at one point, but in the end he bowed to injury worries and the strength of the Fiji team and released a team which included eight of his fourth test team which had lost so narrowly to New Zealand only four days earlier in Auckland.
The local hospitality was something else and in the Lions state of relieved euphoria, having rid themselves of all New Zealanders (except me I suppose; I was the only Kiwi reporter there) they settled down to relaxing and some big public drinking sessions. 'We lost a day here somewhere,' said manager George Burrell to the aftermatch crowd. He was not referring to crossing the dateline or losing his calendar.
Sixteen members of the team went out one night, including some British pressmen, and ran up a bill of $700 [Note; I would guess about $2500nz in today's money]. 'The food was nice,' Irishman Moss Keane recalled the next day, 'ah but the wine was terrific,' and he rolled his eyes back into his head in satisfied reverie.
When the party returned to the hotel, Moss was ceremonially thrown into the swimming pool, clothes and all. 'And as I can't swim,' he said,' I got into immediate difficulties.' But with pulling and boisterous late night teamwork he was hauled out and the festivities raged on. This happened on the Monday night, only 16 hours before the team was to play the might of Fijian rugby, in rampant and hungry mood, at Suva's Buckhurst Park.
The Lions attitude and devotion to winning in Fiji was not all it might have been. Not that it mattered. The next afternoon when Fiji beat 'The Famous Lions,' as they were billed, by 25-21, it was one of the most exciting and enthralling sporting occasions I have witnessed. For a start there was the crowd: all 20,000 of them drummed into a ferment of excitement, because Fiji who had beaten Tonga in a recent three-test series, had a great chance of winning.
It was a also truly colourful sight. The ground is back-dropped by waving coconut palms and the Pacific Ocean; and the playing pitch all year round is as hard as a rock.
Fiji ran the ball at every opportunity and deserved their win. They scored 5 tries (worth 4 points then), some of them thrilling and all containing excellent authority in their execution.
To their credit the Lions contributed fully to the spectacle, not for any great running moves - they were more content to kick for position than spin the ball, but for the way they contributed to the spirit of the occasion.
In the scoring the Lions drew up to 21-all but then Vuato Narisia, the flanker, took a pass from his captain, Pio Bosco Tikoisuva, and dived, like an Olympic swimmer off the blocks, for the winning try. The noise was deafening and the clamour loud and rapturous; the score enabled Fiji to score its first-ever win over a major touring team.
As the players left the field, Fiji's famed Police Band played 'Isa Lei' the Fijian farewell song, and then 'Now is The Hour'. The Lions team boarded the windowless vehicle still in their playing gear, and as they were driven down a dusty road out of the Park the emotion of the day reached its climax. The happy crowd pushed towards the slow-moving bus, the Lions waved and shook hands by the hundreds, and then the band struck up 'Will Ye No Come Back Again?'
Nobody in the touring party seemed to mind losing, as the Fijian's delight was infectious. It was interesting to me though that the fact that the (local) referee had failed to whistle some dreadfully obvious forward passes and had blown a penalty count of 22-4 against the Lions seemed quickly forgotten.
The four 'Home' Unions were beaten on consecutive Saturdays by the rampant ABs! On this day NZ beat Scotland by 29-10
Cardiff and Wales
53 internationals for Wales 1967–78
10 internationals for British Isles 1968–74
Gareth Edwards was one of the most widely acclaimed rugby players of all time – a brilliantly versatile halfback and a strong physical competitor who captured the imagination and admiration of players and followers all over the world.
Edwards first came to prominence outside Wales as a teenager on the Cardiff club’s tour of South Africa in 1967, where he played in a number of positions in the backline. Once back in Wales his enormous talents were soon focused on scrumhalf play. He was chosen for his country three months before his 20th birthday and was never dropped until his retirement. Ten years later, with 53 caps, he had set a record for most internationals for Wales, which stood until passed by J.P.R. Williams in 1981. Edwards’s tests were consecutive – both a world record then, and a monumental feat.
In all his internationals, he was in the losing side on no more than 15 occasions. He scored 20 tries in internationals, at the time also a Welsh record, although later equalled by Gerald Davies and later still passed by Ieuan Evans and Gareth Thomas. Edwards’ total of 63 internationals was also, in its time of few tests in any year, the world’s highest for a scrumhalf. He was Wales’s youngest ever international captain (20 years, seven months in the match against Scotland in February 1968).
At the time of his debut for Wales, in the Five Nations match v France in 1967, Edwards was a physical education student at Cardiff Training College. Later, he switched clubs to Cardiff and became a successful businessman. Later still, at the end of his playing days, he was a media commentator and reporter on the game.
A master of the spin-pass, Edwards had all the other attributes of the complete scrumhalf. His kicking was skilful, his running devastating to any of the opposition that could stay near his electric bursts, and his competitiveness was relentless. He dominated many matches simply because of his presence on the field. He was a brilliant opportunist and scorer of tries.
Perhaps the only aspect of his game that did not reach the highest level was as a captain. Many people felt he was inhibited slightly as a leader, with the result that other Welshmen came past him to lead the national XV. He did not resent this, rather it allowed him to return his full concentration to the scrumhalf role. In all, he was captain of his country in 13 tests.
Edwards played superbly in partnership with that other great Welsh personality, Barry John. The two were together as a scrum-outside half combination on 23 occasions, then the world record. Edwards was part of the great era in Welsh rugby that followed almost exactly the dates of his career. He also played superbly for the British Isles in New Zealand in 1971 and in South Africa in 1974. Both those series were won during what were some of British rugby’s greatest days.
He took part in and, indeed, scored the try that is often hailed as one of the greatest ever seen in the game. It was for the Barbarians club against the All Blacks of 1972–73 at Cardiff. The capacity home crowd of 60,000 roared so loudly they distorted forever the television recordings of Edwards diving in at the end of a 90-metre movement.
Edwards possessed a most charming and modest personality, and became in his time one of the most revered characters in Wales – and the rest of the rugby world.
In 1997 he was one of the first players inaugurated into the International Rugby Hall of Fame.
Stories abound about Gareth Edwards’ prowess at the game. One story has it that on the day of an England-Wales game at Twickenham, one Welsh supporter could not get a ticket so he waited forlornly outside the ground hoping at least to soak up some of the atmosphere and to hear the result. Eventually he became frustrated at not knowing what was happening in the game, so he called up to some people who were in the ground and asked them what was happening. They happened to be English, so they called back ungraciously that all the Welsh team except Gareth Edwards had been carried off injured. This disturbed the already sad Welsh supporter, but he remained typically optimistic. When a huge roar erupted from the ground a few minutes later, he again called up to the crowd. ‘What’s happened, what’s happened?' he said, 'Gareth scored, has he?’
Such a story is typical of the admiration and affection that existed for one of the greatest of rugby men.
Who was the first Welshman to captain the British and Irish Lions on tour?