Willie John in his underpants, puffing on his pipe, hotel lobby destroyed, hotel manager apoplectic . . . it’s the Lions on tour

Beds and decorum out the window par for the course in the old amateur tour days


Willie John McBride stood in his underpants and surveyed the scene. The wreckage of his hotel lobby lay all around, with pieces of tables, bits of chair and other furniture strewn about and, in the thick of it, “a dozen drunken Lions, all out of their tree”.

He clenched his pipe between his teeth,turned to the hotel manager, who was, at that precise moment in the early hours of the morning, dripping wet and hopping up and down on one foot. “What,” Willie John said to the manager, “seems to be the problem”?

The Lions might have got away with it if it hadn’t been for Bobby Windsor. The Welsh hooker was one of those players who just could not help but take things a little too far. It was Bobby who took the blame when Tommy David’s bed was shoved out of a window on to the hotel awning below. He had the misfortune to be standing in the shot when a local photographer took a snap of the scene.

That night, after the Lions’ 28-9 victory over South Africa in the second Test of 1974, “someone”, Bobby remembered, “had set light to a load of empty cardboard beer boxes. So I got the fire extinguisher off the wall, but I couldn’t get it to work. So I grabbed a hose pump and used that instead.”

Windsor was somewhat surprised to find himself being berated by the hotel manager across the pile of soggy, steaming cardboard. “He was being a right prat,” Bobby said. “So I gave him a right good drenching as well.”

‘Banging on my door’
Roger Uttley, the English forward, was sober enough to know that he had better run and get the captain, Willie John. “Roger was banging on my door at 3am, shouting that there was a bit of trouble and I was needed downstairs.”

McBride strolled out, in his pants, pausing only to pick up his pipe because “I never go anywhere without it, especially in times of crisis”.

For some reason, when Willie John, naked but for his pants and pipe, asked him what the matter was, the manager snapped and said he was going to call the police.

“Now,” Willie John thought to himself, “I’d seen the riot police in operation in South Africa and didn’t like the images my mind was conjuring up. I could see hordes of them rushing through the door and I didn’t think they’d be asking for autographs from these drunken idiots.”

Willie John paused and saw the next morning’s headlines in his mind. He considered the situation. Sucked on his pipe. “Excuse me, but if you are going to get the police,” he said to the manager with a smile, “do you think there will be many of them”?

That was that. The Lions left the next morning, but not before they had completed one last little ritual: the tour manager handed over a cheque to compensate the hotel owner for all the damage done.

It all makes the current tour to Austrlia seem tame. Prop Adam Jones has described his average day in the camp before this tour as “Wake up. Cryotherapy. Breakfast. Train. Cryotherapy. Lunch. Train. Cryotherapy. Dinner. Sleep.”

The dullest boys on tour, Jones says, are the teetotallers, who include the captain, Sam Warburton. Brian O’Driscoll says the only chance the drinkers do have to “unwind and have a few beers together” is on the evening after an afternoon kick-off.

After the 22-12 win against Queensland Reds, he said, “the non-playing 23 went home early. By the time the others got in, it was midnight. Some of the boys were already in bed. It is not as conducive to hanging out after games.”

Modern media coverage does not allow players to get away with much, and professionalism means that even if they could, many of them wouldn’t want to.

Under Gatland and Warburton, the Welsh turned all-but teetotal at the 2011 World Cup, allowing those who “feel they need it” a “bottle or two” of beer after a match to relax.

You couldn’t wring too many war stories out of all that on the after-dinner speaking circuit.

But everyone remembers England’s dwarf-tossing, ferry-diving escapades. Most people won’t need reminding, either, which team was two points away from making the final and which was dumped out in disgrace in the quarters.

The Lions, though, have seen it all before.

When they toured New Zealand in 1908 the English forward Percy Down took a dive off the side of a ferry in the very same spot as Manu Tuilagi did, in Auckland harbour 103 years later. Down did a somersault over the railing.

The main difference was six of his team-mates followed him overboard, one of them giving himself such a bad case of concussion as he hit the water he missed the next match.

By then the Lions already had a reputation for making trouble. On their very first tour, in 1888, the local papers in Australia carried reports complaining about their “Rowdyism on the Railway” between Newcastle and Armidale, when “three galoots invaded a private first class carriage, guzzled tea without paying, smashed the cups and saucers, and left the solitary passenger to stand the racket”.

So began 109 years of raising Cain. The 1968 Lions were accused of being the “worst-behaved team ever to tour South Africa” by the Johannesburg Sunday Times.

The sage rugby writer JBG Thomas rejected this on the grounds that, unlike at least one lot of their predecessors, “they have never set fire to a railway carriage”.

That may have been true. But a couple of them did incinerate a pile of blazers belonging to team-mates on the tarmac at Kimberley airport after an “airborne cheese and wine party”.

“They have left a trail of havoc and stunned incredulity after three days in East London,” thundered the Sunday Times. “Marked by severe drinking bouts, riotous behaviour at hotels and nightclubs. They left broken hotel doors, broken glasses by the dozen, unpaid liquor debts and girls in tears because of outright rudeness.”

In New Zealand in 1977 the local girls were crying again, out of boredom rather than rudeness. That was the tour when the infamous “Wanda from Wanganui” told the press she had slept with four of the tourists and found them to be “lousy lovers, boring, self-centred, ruthless, always on the make and anything but exciting bedmates. Give me the down to earth Kiwi male any day”.

‘Pack of animals’
The squad were called a “pack of animals” on that trip, which was the tour which featured the Irish pair of Moss Keane and Willie Duggan, perhaps the last of the real hell-raisers. Duggan had what he called “a pathological dislike of training”, his one concession to fitness being a breakfast of half a dozen raw eggs on the morning of the match.

Ollie Campbell remembers how he used to be able to tell which dressingroom toilet Duggan was in before a match by the clouds of smoke billowing over the cubicle door.

“I always had the philosophy,” Duggan said, “that if you took 30 players out for a night and made sure they were well pissed before they went to bed at 3am, then got them up at 8am, trained the bejaysus out of them, then you would know who was up to lasting 80 minutes in an international.”

Duggan’s great mate Keane would have passed easily enough. Keane cultivated a fear of flying just so, his team-mates reckoned, it was taken for granted he had to have five or six pints before he got on a plane or he wouldn’t be able to travel. In 1977 he was in such a state when he got a last-minute call-up he had a crash on the way to the airport, then left a message for his mother saying “the car is at the airport, it’s written off, see you in four months”.

The king of them all, though, was Blair “Paddy” Mayne, a man who has every claim to being the hardest-drinking, free-est-swinging firebrand in the long history of the Lions. Mayne was an Ireland lock, and one-time university heavyweight boxing champion.

He toured in 1938, when his great running gag, the centre Harry McKibbin said, was to burst into his team-mates’ rooms in the middle of the night, knocking the doors off the hinges, and then systematically smash up all furniture, Keith Moon-style.

“Until,” McKibbin said, “all the chairs and tables and things were just so much bits of kindling around us in the room while we were still in bed.”

The management despaired of Mayne, who hung around with Welsh hooker (what is it about Welsh hookers?) Bunner Travers.

The two of them dressed up as sailors and snuck off to the Durban docks just so they could pick fights with the local longshoremen.

When they got to Ellis Park, they found the stands were being erected by a team of convicts from the local prison who were sleeping in a compound underneath the scaffolding.

Blair and Bunner befriended one of them, and asked him what he had done to merit a prison sentence. “Stealing chickens,” he said. “And I’ve been given a seven-year stretch.” Full of sympathy for their new companion, who they nicknamed “Rooster”, Blair and Bunner returned that night with a pair of bolt cutters and some spare clothes.

They sprung Rooster, and set him free. When he was caught the next day, it turned out the jacket he was wearing still had Mayne’s name stitched inside the collar.

In desperation, the management decided to make Mayne share a room with the outhalf George Cromey, a Presbyterian minister. Even Cromey couldn’t stop Mayne sneaking off from an official dinner to go on a late-night hunting trip with a group of men he’d met who were carrying rifles and lamplights. Cromey waited up for his room-mate till 3am, and then, just as he was nodding off, Mayne broke down the door and announced “I’ve just shot a springbok”.

His blood ran cold
Cromey said his blood ran cold. And then he turned on the light, and saw Mayne, still wearing his cummerbund, with a dead antelope draped over his shoulders.

“Jimmy Unwin has been complaining the meat here isn’t as fresh as it is back home,” Mayne announced. So he took himself off to team-mate Unwin’s room, broke down that door too, and tossed the beast into his bed.

The trouble was, in all the confusion, Unwin cut his leg on the antelope’s horn. That wouldn’t do. So Mayne decided to deposit it outside the room of the South Africa manager, with a note saying: “A gift of fresh meat from the British Isles touring team.”

Well, that did it. Even though the captain, Sammy Walker, was a great friend of his, Mayne knew the management were going to tan his hide. So he scarpered. The team didn’t see him for three days, till he turned up, still in his suit, to meet them on the ship they were sailing home on.

And if those stories sound a little far-fetched, as though, like all the best tales, they have gained a little in the telling, well, they’ve nothing on what he did next. Mayne became one of the founding members of the SAS in the second World War.

He was recruited out of a prison cell, where he had been sent after striking a senior officer “because he bored me”. His bravery won him the Distinguished Service Order with three bars, the Légion d’honneur, and the Croix de Guerre.

Rugby has gained a lot from professionalism but it has a lost a little something too. On the pitch the 2013 Lions may play better rugby than most of their predecessors managed – harder, faster, and tougher, but off it, they’re not a patch on the ones who came before them.
Guardian Service