Lions Legend: John Bentley

John Bentley may have only toured once with the Lions but he deserves his place as a Lions legend for his performances on the field and his presence off it. [more]

Lions Legend: John Bentley

John Bentley may have only toured once with the Lions but he deserves his place as a Lions legend for his performances on the field and his presence off it.

The English wing was one of the surprise choices on the 1997 tour of South Africa as the Lions toppled the then World Champions in their own backyard.

Almost unheard of outside the north of England before the tour, Bentley was a household name after Britain and Ireland’s elite returned home.

Bentley hadn’t played international rugby union for an incredible nine years prior to departure for South Africa having switched codes as a 21-year-old. Union’s loss had been League’s gain in 1988 as Bentley enjoyed a productive career with Leeds, Halifax and briefly with Australian outfit Balmain Tigers in rugby’s paid ranks. He added five appearances for the England Rugby League side to his two union caps and also represented Great Britain at the 13-a-side version of the sport ahead of being selected for the Lions.

The Yorkshire-born and bred winger returned to rugby union with then second division Newcastle in 1996 and the Lions were quickly in contact surrounding his potential availability. Tour manager Fran Cotton had worked with Bentley during his early days at Sale and the former Lions prop was convinced the 30-year-old would be perfectly suited to a Lions adventure.

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His progress was monitored by Cotton and head coach Sir Ian McGeechan in the lead up to the tour, with Bentley doing enough to earn the ultimate call up despite not featuring for either England or England A during the 1996/97 season. And while his selection may have baffled most observers, McGeechan and Cotton clearly knew what they were doing.

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John Bentley played a central role in the success of the 1997 Lions

Bentley’s tireless sense of humour, infectious enthusiasm and commitment to the cause endeared him to team-mates and travelling supporters alike, as well as the millions who watched his off-field antics and on-field heroics on the fly on the wall documentary Living with the Lions.

He kept his colleagues amused and entertained with his unique brand of comedy four years after a lack of unity and an obvious split between the Test team and the mid-week side had plagued the tour to New Zealand, but he was far from just the tour joker.

His professionalism in training set an example to others, with his league background meaning he was far more accustomed to life as a full-time rugby player than many of his colleagues. And his input at game time was also impressive as he notched up seven tries in eight matches, including an absolute stunner against the Gauteng Lions.

Bentley beat seemingly endless members of the opposition (the official tally was five) on his way to one of the most memorable individual tries ever scored by a Lion in more than 120 years of touring as the Wednesday side overturned a 9-3 deficit at Ellis Park. And the class of that score was matched by its importance to the Lions as a whole as it sealed a hard-fought 20-14 success and got the tour back on track following the previous Saturday’s morale-denting defeat to North Eastern Transvaal.

Question marks over his defence – in terms of concentration and quality rather than his commitment and guts – meant he was overlooked for the first-Test win in Cape Town but injury to Ieuan Evans saw him start the series-clinching success in Durban and the final rubber in Johannesburg.

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Bentley scored seven Lions tries, including two against Western Province

His solitary Lions adventure wasn’t without controversy, however, as he found himself embroiled in a personal battle with fellow wing James Small in the win over Western Province at the end of May. Small accused Bentley of eye gouging – a charge that was never proven and one that the Englishman firmly denies – while Bentley was far from impressed with Small’s choice language, bully-boy tactics and his refusal to shake hands at Newlands.

The war of words and the extensive press coverage that followed rumbled on for days, weeks, and months but it was Bentley who had the last laugh as he got the better of his man to score a brace of tries in the game in question before tasting series success against the Springboks, while Small slipped out of the Test reckoning after defeat in the opening international.

And having left an indelible mark on Small and the rest of South Africa, Bentley returned to England a far more famous figure than when he left. Unfortunately, he failed to hit the heights he had reached with the Lions ever again, although he did experience Allied Dunbar Premiership glory with Newcastle in 1998. He added two more England caps to his pre-tour tally but then swapped codes once again in 1999, slipping back into wilderness as far as union fans were concerned.

Bentley’s career in union was far, far shorter than his time in league but he made more of an impact in his seven weeks as a Lion than most players do in a lifetime in the sport. One of the game’s true characters, Bentley’s outspoken approach may have appeared arrogant to some observers but there’s no doubt that his confidence rubbed off on the Lions. ‘An outstanding tourist’ in Cotton’s eyes, Bentley was at the heart of all that was good about the ’97 Lions, and for that we should all be very grateful.

John Bentley's factfile

Date of birth: September 5, 1966
Clubs: Sale, Leeds RL, Halifax RL, Newcastle, Huddersfield RL
International caps: England 4, England RL 5, Great Britain RL 1
Height: 6ft (1.82m)
Weight: 15 stone 6lbs (98kg)

Bentley's Lions lowdown

Lions debut: Versus Border Bulldogs, May 28, 1997
Lions Tests: 2 (2nd and 3rd Tests in 1997)
Lions non-Test appearances: 6
Total Lions appearances: 8
Lions points: 35 (seven tries)
Final Lions appearance: Versus South Africa, Johannesburg, July 5, 1997

On his selection for the Lions

“To play rugby union was a huge step and I never expected to be called up to play for the Lions – it was a different world.

“I’d signed for Newcastle in September. My year was going to be spent playing eight months for Newcastle and four months continuing to play for Halifax in the Super League. Fran rang me in the January – I’d been under his guidance at Sale in 1988 prior to going professional – and he said, ‘Are you available to tour with the Lions in the summer?’ Technically, I wasn’t but I said, ‘Yes’.

“Fran said they needed to look at me playing against slightly better opposition and that he’d contact England and see if they could get me a game for the second string. He rang me back and said, ‘The news won’t come as a surprise but they won’t touch you’. So when I got selected, I think the majority of people had never heard of me.

“But when people ask me if it was a surprise in the end, it wasn’t because Fran had told me they were watching me. It was a great honour, though, and I had never expected to be involved.”

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Bentley epitomised the spirit of the 1997 Lions on and off the field

On his infamous altercation with James Small

“James Small is a bully. He’d gone round me early doors, I’d managed not to tackle him, he’d kicked the ball on and the ball was touched down for a 22-metre drop out for us. He came back to me doubting my parentage and circling his finger.

“Ten minutes later he went for exactly the same manoeuvre. I got across to him a little bit sharper, the ball went dead, we stepped out of play, I thought we were out of out of line of the touchline camera and our heads bumped together.

“About five minutes later, the ball was at our No8 Scott Quinnell’s feet, Rob Howley shouts, ‘Box nine Bentos’, the ball went up in the sky and came down with snow on it, James Small caught the ball, I chased after it, I tackled him and then, fortunately for me, eight hairy-arsed forwards jumped on top of us so no one had a clue what was going on at the bottom of the ruck.

“I started to give him a little bit. He was kicking off but he couldn’t go anywhere. The forwards started to pull us off but they were sliding the punches in as well!

“We won the game, I’d scored a couple of tries and, at the end of the game, I went to shake his hand. Live on television, in front of all these people and in front of the selectors, he refused to take my hand. Two days later, having been slagged off by the entire British and South African press and having been threatened with being thrown out of the South African Test side, he accused me of eye gouging. I didn’t eye gouge him…but I did kick the s***out of him.”

On playing a 15-man game but still fronting up against the Boks

“Geech said that when you play against the Springboks, if you stand something up in front of them, they’ll knock it over and stamp it into the ground.

“We thought we were going away on tour for a bare knuckle fist fight, man for man. I was sat with Scott Gibbs and Alan Tait when Geech was talking about the tour for the first time at Weybridge in Surrey.

“He said we were going to play a game where we were going to move the ball away from the physical threat and play rugby that we’d never played in the northern hemisphere before, and I don’t think we’ve ever played it since. We played a 15-man game and the likes of Paul Wallace and Tom Smith were an integral part of that success.

“I got elbowed from either side by Gibbsy and Taity when Geech was saying that as they thought it was a bit of a defeatist attitude.

“We went into the backyard of the world champions who were, in my recollection of playing the sport, the most violent rugby players you will ever play against. But, in their defence, they were consistent and we knew exactly what was going to happen. Quite early on in that tour, we decided that, ‘We’re not hear as punch bags, we’re not here to be knocked about’.”

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Bentley won two Lions Test caps having also represented GB at rugby league

On defeat to North Eastern Transvaal

“We lost the game and it told us that we’ve got a huge challenge here. It was a huge defeat for me. There were 13 games on that tour and you needed to play on a Saturday. If you played on a Saturday throughout the tour you’d play in the Tests. I got into the Saturday team for that game.

“Jerry Guscott jokes about me being quite choppsy and being quite vocal about intimidating and terrorizing the bloke stood in front of me. My opposite man was about 40 metres away and I was saying what I was going to do to him and this, that and the other, but about 30 minutes later I found myself sat on the bench. He’d scored two tries and I was back in the midweek team!”

On that try against Gauteng Lions

“We play a sport that lends itself to individuals having special moments. There is no doubt that that was a very special moment for me and it continues to be talked about today.

“But more importantly, I’d had a terrible game the Saturday before and I’d been replaced. I have a lot to say for myself and was trying to get everybody involved behind the scenes, just being a prankster, really, but I locked myself in my room for three days after that North Eastern Transvaal game – I’d gone off tour. The reason why I’d gone on tour was to play rugby, not to keep everybody entertained.

“Beating Gauteng was a big win for us. We’d just lost a game and they would have seen us creaking and rocking a little bit, but our tour was back on the road. It didn’t matter how we got it, it was just important that we got a win that night.”

On the 1997 tour as a whole

“Before the second Test, two hours before kick off, I was actually in tears. Geech was speaking about special days in your lives saying, ‘In 30 years’ time, you’ll see a guy across the street and, having spent this day with him, you won’t need to say anything to him, you’ll just look at him in the eye’. And that’s happened time and time again. It was a great time.

“We all have individual moments that we recall but, having been written off as a bunch of no hopers, for us to win the second Test, and for me to be a part of it, was my biggest highlight. I don’t think I realized how big an achievement it was until I got home.”

Quotes taken from Bentley’s appearance on Time of their Lives on Sky television.

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