My Lions Moment: Dawson races into rugby history
Plenty of players have had the experience.
The game is on the line. Your team is behind on the scoreboard. A fleeting window of opportunity slides past.
Many players let those moments go – follow the playbook, do the expected thing, shift the ball to the next man.
Some just go for it.
Matt Dawson’s moment arrived at Newlands in 1997, just outside the 22-metre line with 72 minutes on the clock and his Lions team a point behind in the first Test of the series.
Teams within teams was the coaching mantra in ’97 and from Dawson’s perspective, while it might look like the ultimate individual act, a confluence of events put him in position change the destiny of the series.
Looking back, what are his memories?
“The scrum was a focus of the whole Tour. Endless hours of putting the ball in to the hooker, hooker striking it to number eight and number eight picking it up without their really being a scrummage.
“It had worked pretty well for most of that game, Tim Rodber had scooped he ball up and gotten smashed. But we had kept the ball.”
“We called the same move for a number eight pick-up. Tim pulled his head up and basically told me to get lost, he actually used a slightly more impolite word than that, and said ‘why don’t you have a go’.”
Solo was the name of the move and Dawson’s immediate thoughts were not of match-winning tries with Ruben Kruger, Gary Teichmann and the great Joost Van Der Westhuizen among the defenders.
“I’ve put the ball in thinking, ‘I’m going to get absolutely marmalised here but just get on and do it’.”
Quick ball secured, those famous scrum sessions and Jim Telfer’s work in mentally priming the pack paying off, Dawson is briefly crouched over the ball before he takes off.
Kruger misses first, perhaps focussed on Rodber. Dawson arcs just outside his left arm. Springboks begin to converge with Teichmann and Van Der Westhuizen among those closing in.
The isolated figure in red is in a full sprint before he makes a one-handed motion as though to flip the ball back inside. There is the slightest pause in his cadence as he does so. Crucially, Ieuan Evans swerves off his wing and towards the defenders. The nature of the run and the Welshman’s status in the game combine to keep the window open a fraction longer.
“He came on this ridiculous scissor line into all the traffic which makes no sense. No one knew me, everyone knew Ieaun Evans the world class winger…it was one of those instinctive things. Then I looked for my support, paused and then thought I’d better carry on running.”
Dawson races untouched into rugby history, putting the ball down one-handed before jogging back towards his team-mates thinking ‘what’s happened here’.”
Even now, it is as simple or as complex as you want to make it.
“You’re responding to what’s in front of you in a split second. It was the right call from Tim, then from me and from Ieuan.”
Dawson can see that he was doing what Head Coach Sir Ian McGeechan had picked him to do.
“I was always an instinctive player. It was one of the reasons he pitched for me to go on the Tour with relatively little experience. He knew I wasn’t scared of making big decisions even though I wouldn’t always be right. That’s how he always viewed my game.”
With minutes remaining Alan Tait scores to seal the win and tee up what will become an iconic series success when Jerry Guscott takes his opportunity a week later.
The post-match celebrations are captured on Living With Lions, with the likes of skipper Martin Johnson imitating the famous dummy, while Dawson himself is interviewed by team-mate Rob Wainwright outside the dressing room door, a ‘rabbit in the headlights’ the experienced TV professional says now.
By then, the squad was a tight-knit group and Dawson is quick to mention that Neil Jenkins kicks and Tait’s try were also part of the post-match fun in the dressing room ahead of a celebratory night themed by Wonderwall and wide-open shirts worn 70s style.
But it’s a slightly surreal moment not captured on the famous documentary that really sticks out, a phonecall from a Northampton team-mate. Hard as it is to believe, text-messaging had not really become established. The likes of WhatsApp and Social Media were miles away.
“I looked at my phone and I had hundreds of voice messages. I nipped to the loo and sat down and started listening. I got to one from Harvey Thorneycroft, who was in a bar in Northampton called Aunty Ruth’s where everyone used to go and I can hear in the background that the place was going crazy. Nowadays you would see everything immediately on the likes of Instagram but my experience was being stuck in the toilet in Newlands, listening to a voice-message while my mates watched the match and had the best party ever.”
How does he feel about it now?
“It is incredibly humbling to be part of one of those moments. And in the bigger picture, for lots of reasons from the fact it was the first of the professional era, the way it was covered, to the fans, it was special. If you’re into rugby you will want to know about the Lions of ’97. It was by far the greatest Tour that I ever went on.”
Opportunities have continued to come Dawson’s way since and he has continued to take them. He is of course well-known for his Question of Sport and BBC Radio 5 Live work, while there have been stints on Celebrity Masterchef, which he won, and Strictly Come Dancing, where he was second though he is no serial Reality TV contestant!
There is also a ‘day job’ in business while the likes of UNICEF, and Bowel Cancer UK are among those to have benefitted from his profile over the years. He and wife Carolin also fronted an awareness campaign for Meningits.
And then there is the rugby career. Because of his association with two iconic sequences, this one for the ’97 Lions and his vital role in England’s Rugby World Cup winning drop-goal six years later, it is easy to associate Dawson with highlights and cameo moments.
Part of a generation of high-quality England half-backs that also included Kyran Bracken, Andy Gomerall and Austin Healy, he finished up as Rugby World Cup winner with England and a European Cup winner with Northampton, and as Lion #685 is one of very few to be selected to go on three Tours, and an even smaller group to have played in Tests on three.
In fact, just 21 of the 835 Lions have achieved that particular feat.
“The Lions felt so out of reach to even dream about it. You didn’t grow up seeing it in the way you do now. Wayne Shelford was at Northampton and tried to persuade them to take me on the Tour in ’93, he was doing pieces in the papers!
“For the next four years it was quite a focus for me. Three very different trips, being selected and playing in Test matches on all three, it’s a nice statistic to have…it was a roller-coaster ride.”