When Bob Taylor learned of his call-up to the 1968 British and Irish Lions touring party to South Africa, his first concern was whether his employers would let him go.
Taylor might have been an England international at the weekends, but it was his role as PE and mathematics master at Wellingborough Grammar School that paid the bills.
Understandably there was trepidation in asking the question. This being the heady days of amateurism, Taylor would not have been the first man denied a Lions odyssey by the restraints of his day job. Thankfully, Wellingborough headmaster Harry Wrenn was a rugby man himself, and not about to stand in his way.
"When I was picked for the Lions I had to go to school to get permission for time off," Taylor said. "I went to see Harry Wrenn and I told him I’d been asked. He said straight away: ‘You tell ’em you’re available. I plan to bask in your reflective glory’.
"At the next governers’ meeting he stood up and said: ‘Mr Taylor will be away for a while, he’s been selected for the British Lions. He’ll be on full pay’. There were other schoolmasters who came with us on that tour, but some of those were released without any pay. Most of us were very lucky that we could wrangle it."
THE ’68 LIONS MEET BESIDE THE SEASIDE
The 1968 Lions were captained by Ireland fullback Tom Kiernan and boasted the attacking gifts of his compatriot Mike Gibson, alongside Welsh trio Barry John, Gerald Davies and Gareth Edwards in a potentially devastating backline.
Willie John McBride would add his considerable presence to the forwards, with Northampton back-row Taylor among seven England players in a Welsh-heavy squad of 33.
Having been humbled by the masterful All Blacks in 1966, all the talk was of redemption for the class of ’68. But the Lions looked far from a clinical winning machine when they came together in Eastbourne on the Sussex coast to get acquainted.
"We were a motley crew when turned up," Taylor said. "We all had different shirts and shorts on and we all wore different tracksuits. They were no Lions tracksuits back then.
"We were genuine amateurs. We were asked to buy two pairs of shorts, a pair of boots and a Lions shirt – which I actually swapped for a South African one so I don’t even have one of those anymore. And you had to provide receipts for everything if you wanted the money back."
It was not long before the injury problems that would beset the ’68 squad began, with Taylor’s Northampton and England team-mate Brian West the first man down before the players had even stepped foot on South African soil.
"Brian turned up in Eastbourne with a broken ankle," Taylor said. "We knew straight away he wouldn’t be able to play until late on in the tour, but he gave it a go anyway."
TRAVELLING TO APARTHEID SOUTH AFRICA
The South Africa preparing for the 1968 Lions was in the midst of apartheid. Widespread unrest and spiralling violence was drawing the attention of a world, and opposition to the political regime in power was growing stronger by the day. But there was never any question whether a rugby union team representing Britain and Ireland should travel.
"To be quite honest we were young rugby players and we weren’t particularly interested in the political scene back then," said Taylor, who elevated to RFU chairman in 2007 and knows all to well the role of politics in the modern game.
"We had a presentation from the South Africa embassy where we were told not to associate with women of a dark skin. And we were told quite clearly there were areas that were white only and areas that were black only. One or two of the players had a hang-up about going, but I had no hang-ups at all."
Unlike the 2009 Lions, the ’68 edition would not have the benefit of 40,000 travelling fans to cheer them on. Passage to South Africa was prohibitively expensive and with the tour set to last four long months, the clamour to be there in person simply did not exist yet.
"Nobody went. We had a press pack of about 15 and four or five from BBC2, who were providing the first ever live television coverage of the Lions," Taylor said.
"The only support we had were representatives from the four Home Unions, who came out because it was a duty. We didn’t suffer, because we weren’t expecting it. It was low profile back then."
SPRINGBOKS OVERPOWER LIONS IN TEST SERIES
Taylor started at flanker for the Lions’ opening victory against Western Transvaal, then moved to No8 and went over for a try as they beat South Western Districts 24-6.
The Lions were roaring. Six games in and with a 100-per-cent record against provincial opposition, it was time for the four-match Test series to begin. And Taylor was duly handed a starting berth before an intimidating crowd of 75,000 in Pretoria.
"The whole place was open," Taylor said. "The stands went up into the sky. They just went up and up and up.
"As a player the best thing you could do was to get somewhere near the middle of the field and orientate yourself, because you can lose track of where the game is taking place if you’re not careful. They were hostile crowds in South Africa. They’d throw things at you."
The Lions came close, but a 25-20 defeat proved a marker for an unsuccessful Test campaign. Kiernan’s men drew the second match 6-6 but lost the series 3-0 against a South Africa side captained by Dawie de Villiers and with Frik du Preez, Piet Greyling, Tommy Bedford and Jan Ellis deployed in a brutally efficient group of forwards.
"It was fierce in the pack," said Taylor, who played in all four Tests. "It was pretty ruthless. If you did something that was gaining you an advantage they’d take measures to stop you. The fist was commonplace. And they had a lot of good footballers too.
"But we actually did well in the forwards, we got quite a lot of ball. If anything our backs lacked an extra bit of pace. We had the players, but I’m not sure the backs were as well organised as they should have been."
In fairness to the backs in question, they were ravaged by injury. Barry John broke his collarbone early on in the tour and the magical foursome that was John, Edwards, Davies and Gibson never lined up on the same Test side.
LIONS’ PRIDE RESTORED AND LESSONS LEARNED
Though the Lions were defeated in the Test series, they came away with a provincial record in South Africa that remains unsurpassed and went a long way to recapturing the magical Lions spirit. Moreover, they set a blueprint for how the legendary sides of the 1970s would go about their business.
"The big thing we came home having learned was that we genuinely needed to have both a manager and a coach," said Taylor, who was given the Lions captaincy for a handful of their provincial games.
"Because previously we’d had a manager and assistant, and the captain was the coach."
Of course it wasn’t all work, work, work, for the ’68 Lions. What the amateur era lacked in financial reward and organisation, it more than made up for with an emphasis on revelry that was at the very heart of the Lions movement.
"The drinking on that tour was fantastic, absolutely fantastic," Taylor said, breaking into a broad grin.
"But it wasn’t terribly sociable with the opposition. We’d meet for the reception and obviously we’d chat. But you could sense their focus was more on the game and how they were going to win it. We’d often be kept separate too, staying in different parts of the city."
THEN AND NOW
Having played the game during its amateur heyday; then moved upstairs to play his part in rugby’s professional revolution, Taylor is better qualified than most to reflect on how things have changed on the field.
Clearly the players are bigger, stronger and fitter than ever before, but Taylor believes the seismic shift in the professional era, in terms of how games are won and lost, has been an added emphasis on tactics. And the 2009 Lions tour will be no exception.
"The difference nowadays is today there are patterns of play repeated," he said. "We didn’t used to do that. We’d drive as far as we could and then break off and do something with the ball.
"Also, in our day everybody had the right to make a decision on the field to get the advantage. That was your philosophy.
"If we had good ball in our own 22 we’d run it. The call would be ‘Cream Ball’ and off you’d go. It was like Barbarians rugby in every match. It was players being independent, whereas today they’re playing to a practised pattern. It’s more clinical these days."
But while the coaching mentality has changed markedly since Taylor’s playing days, he maintains the fundamentals of the game are the same as they always have been.
"It’s a game or running and fighting, it always has been," he said.
"You’re either running with the ball and fighting to keep it, or you’re running after it and fighting to get it back. It’s as simple as that. What teams have to work out – is the best way to get through their opposition."
LOOKING FORWARD TO THE SUMMER
Taylor will naturally be watching every kick as this summer as the Lions attempt to win their first series in 12 years against the world champions South Africa. But he has his concerns.
"I hope we’ve picked the players who are both good characters and good rugby players," he said. "That’s the combination that gives you the determination to play and succeed. You’re up against it and you’ve got to find that out very quickly."