Fran Cotton is one of a select band of Lions to have experienced series glory as both a player and administrator.
Plenty of big names have attempted to back up their victories on the field with an equally instrumental role off it but only Sir Ian McGeechan pips Cotton to the title of the biggest double-sided success story of them all.
Cotton’s first brush with legendary Lions status came in 1974 when he starred for Willie John McBride’s Invincibles on their 1974 tour of South Africa.
The fearsome prop forward featured from the start in all four Tests against the Springboks as Britain and Ireland’s elite recorded their first unbeaten adventure since 1891. Cotton was selected at tighthead for each of the internationals, forming a quite brilliant partnership with Ian McLaughlan and Bobby Windsor as the Lions battered the Boks up front.
Some 33 years later Cotton would return to the scene of his greatest triumph as tour manager for the first pride of professional Lions. And just as he had done in ’74, Cotton inspired the tourists to a truly sensational success – one that was arguably even more remarkable than its predecessor.
While the class of ’74 may have travelled with high hopes following their win over the All Blacks in 1971, the 1997 Lions were written off as no hopers even before they had arrived in South Africa. But with McGeechan at the helm and Cotton as far more than just a figurehead, the Lions left for home with one of the biggest scalps the game has ever seen.
A 2-1 series victory over the World Champions was based on unity and spirit and for that Cotton deserves a great deal of credit. The players and coaches may have been the ones who put in the hard yards on the training field and fought the face-to-face battles with the Boks, but Cotton was at the heart of the camaraderie that set the platform for success.
Cotton knew what it took to win with the Lions and he instilled that belief into his charges as they confounded their critics by beating the global kings in Cape Town and Durban. His understanding of the Springbok mentality and his pride in the famous red jersey also played a major part in ensuring the Lions ended the 20th century on an almighty high.
Crucially, Cotton’s players knew he was one of them. Like his head coach, he treated the squad as adults and backed them 100 per cent both on and off the field. His unwavering and unquestionable support of John Bentley after the winger’s controversial clash with James Small was a shining example of his commitment to the cause and further proof, if any was needed, that this group of Lions would stick together to a man.
Fran Cotton (centre) earned legendary Lions status as a player and a manager
Cotton’s Lions career began with a win in South Africa and ended in similar style but he also experienced disappointment with the best these isles have to offer.
A starter on the loosehead in three of the four Tests in New Zealand in 1977, Cotton and co were unable to make it three series wins in a row for the Lions as they lost out by an average of just three points a game.
The Loughborough University, Coventry and later Sale star did provide one of the most iconic images in the history of our sport on that particular tour, however, as he was pictured covered in mud during the win over New Zealand Juniors in Wellington. It’s an image that will forever be associated with the Lions and another example of just how far Cotton would go for his team-mates and the Lions badge.
The trip to New Zealand wasn’t the end of his Lions playing days as he went back to South Africa at the turn of the eighties. But rather than pushing for a Test place in captain Bill Beaumont’s side, Cotton’s 1980 tour was halted prematurely when he suffered serious chest pains after a game against the Proteas in Stellenbosch.
The initial diagnosis of a mild heart attack was thankfully an incorrect one but the viral pericarditis he did have ruled him out of the rest of the trip. That illness at first looked like ending his playing career on a sour note but he made a remarkable comeback for both club and country before being forced to retire due to recurring leg infections in 1981.
His legendary Lions status was officially recognised when he was voted into HSBC’s all-time Lions XV prior to the 2009 tour but Cotton’s career in the front row would have been a special one regardless of his connections with the world’s most famous touring team.
The son of a successful rugby league player, Cotton captained the North-West Counties to victory over the All Blacks and experienced Grand Slam glory with England in the season of his third Lions tour. He captained his country – as well as the mid-week Lions – and picked up 31 caps in a decade of international rugby despite being considered too tall for a prop at 6ft 2in. His ball-playing abilities even resulted in him skippering England at the inaugural World Sevens tournament in 1973.
Cotton also holds a remarkable playing record in South Africa, never having experienced defeat in a single match in that rugby-mad country. As well as the heroics of the ’74 Lions, Cotton’s four games in 1980 were all wins, while he also went undefeated with England back in 1972.
Cotton (second from left) was voted into the greatest Lions XV
After retiring from the playing side of the sport, Cotton was banned from any involvement with rugby union for a decade for writing a book about his career and keeping the proceeds in the amateur era.
He soon experienced success in the business sector, though, founding the Cotton Traders clothing company with fellow Lion Steve Smith in 1987 – a company that is still going strong today, selling leisure apparel and kitting out top sides like Leicester Tigers and Newcastle Falcons.
His management experience in the commercial world and his standing within the sporting one ensured he returned to Lions colours after coaching Sale and taking the North of England on tour to Namibia and Zimbabwe. His impact on the modern English game was then heightened shortly after his latest Lions success as he played his part in persuading future World Cup winner Sir Clive Woodward to take the national coaching job.
Cotton is still involved in rugby having joined the board of directors at Sale in 2007 and was initially lined up to run an RFU-led review into England’s disappointing 2011 World Cup campaign before the idea was scrapped in favour of one conducted by the Professional Game Board.
Fran Cotton’s factfile
Date of birth: January 3, 1947
Clubs: Coventry, Sale
International caps: England 31
Height: 6ft 2in (1.89m)
Weight: 16 stone 7lbs (105kg)
Cotton’s Lions lowdown as a player
Lions debut: Versus Western Transvaal, May 15, 1974
Lions Tests: 7 (All four Tests in 1974 and the 2nd, 3rd and 4th Tests in 1977)
Lions non-Test appearances: 27
Total Lions appearances: 34
Lions points: 0
Final Lions appearance: Versus SARA Federation XV, Stellenbosch, May 27, 1980
Cotton on his Lions dream
“The first time I had ever really become aware of the Lions was in 1968, when they were on tour to South Africa. The tour was covered by television and I remember, as a youngster, training at Newton-le-Willows Rugby Club and then crowding into the clubhouse with the rest of the players to watch the games. I marvelled at the quality of the rugby and the huge crowds and, in my case at least, it really did fire a young man’s imagination.
“To be selected years later was a dream come true and having toured both South and New Zealand with the Lions I felt I had measured myself against the best in the world. I believe you have no claim to being labelled as a world-class player until you have made your mark on a long tour to the southern hemisphere. And I don’t care what anyone says to the contrary.”
On an incredible atmosphere in the build up to the first Test in 1974
“So it was to Cape Town for the first Test and we came down to the captain's room. It was half full and nobody was saying a word, not a word. It was probably another five minutes before everyone arrived, and still nobody's saying a word. Willie John McBride arrives, nobody says a word. And then 20 minutes passed – 20 minutes!
“Well, you can imagine the atmosphere in the room, and he just looked at us all and said: 'Right then, we're ready,' and we got on the coach.
“It was the most unreal thing I've ever been through. But the tension that had built up was fantastic.”
Only Mark Mullineux, Roger Uttley, Sir Ian McGeechan and Cotton have won a Lions series as a player and a coach or administrator
On the infamous 99 call that supposedly encouraged every single Lion to join in if a team-mate was involved in an on-field fracas in ‘74
“I never heard Willie John, or anybody else for that matter, use the infamous 99 call on that ‘74 tour. It's become part of rugby folklore but I don't remember it at all.
“What I do remember is that the 1974 Lions were so together as a group, so in tune mentally, that Willie John didn't have to shout 99. He just had to think it!
“If anybody was being messed around or roughed up we all reacted as one, it was a scramble to get stuck in and strike the first retaliatory blow. Unbelievably JPR Williams, way out there at full-back, was often first on the scene.”
On being named tour manager in 1997
“Right up to the day I received the telephone call making it all possible, it had never even entered my head that I might one day effectively become one of the chosen few again. When I retired from playing in 1981 I was banned by the RFU for having the temerity to write a book and keep the proceeds…so I was effectively taken out of rugby for 10 years.
“During the interview with the Lions committee I told them that if they wanted an ambassadorial type of manager, waving a flag at cocktail parties, then I wasn’t the man they needed. I said I wanted to be in charge of all aspects of the tour and allowed to have a major say in how the management team was constructed.
“It was an honour and privilege to manage the ‘97 Lions, an outstanding group of guys in every respect.”
Cotton will forever be associated with Britain and Ireland's elite
On being underestimated by the Springboks in ‘97
“We were written off from the moment our plane landed. They were World Champions and the Super 12 was perceived as a vastly superior and more professional competition to anything in the north. That new generation of Bok players had possibly forgotten, or just didn't know, how big a deal an incoming Lions tour was.
“Coming after their memorable World Cup triumph in 1995 and the excitement of those early Tri-Nations tournaments, it didn't resonate as loud as it should have. South Africa installed a new coach who had never worked at the highest level before – we just couldn't believe that – kept their Test players out of the provincial teams which gave us an easier run-in and then didn't select a first choice goal-kicker. We even persuaded them to give us the first two Tests at sea-level.
“Perhaps the ‘97 Lions didn't boast so many huge names as ‘74 but my god they made every last ounce of their ability count. Like ‘74 they were totally together as a unit and I have never seen a group train so hard. But they got the balance absolutely right: we relaxed when the opportunity presented itself and we enjoyed each other's company.
“Sometimes in sport, as in life, you get your just rewards for all the hard work you put in. South Africa 1997 was one of those occasions.”
On how the class of ’97 cemented the Lions concept
“History will tell future generations how the 1997 Lions won a Test series 2-1 in South Africa and also helped change the face of European rugby.
“The very future of Lions tours was being questioned by people with their own selfish axe to grind. Ultimately, however, the players provided their own perfect riposte to the ‘no hopers’ tag and, through the quality of their rugby and the interest it generated, they left nobody in any doubt concerning the desire for the Lions concept to be retained.”