Dafydd James: “I kissed the badge and told myself that I’d done it”

“It was like a scene from Jerry Maguire, with the lights and the crowd. I knew I was going to score 20 metres out. It was glorious." [more]

Dafydd James: “I kissed the badge and told myself that I’d done it”

Dafydd James can remember everything. He can recall how he felt, what he saw and what he thought as he lived a boyhood dream and scored a Test try for The British & Irish Lions.

The 2001 series against Australia may have ended in defeat but for James, wearing that red jersey was the pinnacle of a 15-year career that started in Bridgend and finished in Sale – a journey that went via Brisbane, Melbourne and Sydney.

The winger was unfortunate to miss out on the 1997 Tour to South Africa, watching from the outside with his face pressed against the window after being named as a reserve.

But in 2001, he was front and centre of a magical Lions display and scored the second try in a 29-13 first Test victory that still ranks as one of their best-ever.

The Gabba may be a fortress for Australia’s cricket team but the Lions ripped the Wallabies apart with three unanswered tries. The key moment? Yep, you guessed it.

Graham Henry, an intelligent and creative coach, drilled his charges on a move he’d designed, sensing a weakness in the way Australia defended the scrum.

All-action Wallabies flanker Owen Finegan was often stationed on the blindside and Henry was keen to take advantage, telling centre Brian O’Driscoll to wrap around the back and run hard, Jason Robinson to support and James to finish it off.

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Mid-way through the first half, the Lions had a scrum on half-way. Cue the music.

“I can tell you the exact minute and second,” James said only half-joking.

“It was textbook, straight from the training field and it happened just like we practised. Brian [O’Driscoll] got past a couple, Jason [Robinson] drew in the full-back and then I was in.

“This part is quite poignant but my grandfather was there. He fought in the war and was stationed in Australia, so it meant a lot to him to be there.

“He was sat with family and they told him to beat the crowd and get to the toilet before half-time, so obviously he missed my try! He was devastated. We lost him this year but my family being there meant so much more. It was the ultimate high.”

James’ try and Jonny Wilkinson’s conversion stretched the Lions’ lead from two to nine points and Australia would not be as close again. O’Driscoll’s individual brilliance at the beginning of the second half and Scott Quinnell’s close-range finish completed a brilliant victory.

“The whole day was crazy,” added James, who also won 48 caps for Wales and played in two World Cups.

“We scheduled a meeting on the day of the first Test and Willie John McBride was there.

“They set us up in a horseshoe formation and he spoke to the group about South Africa 1974. It was so inspirational, everyone was engaged and awe-struck by this guy.

“He called out our names 1-23 and presented our jerseys individually. The magnitude and achievement sunk in when I shook his hand and he told me my place was well-deserved. It was so very surreal.

“It was then time to go to the bus but we were told to go to the first floor first, which was odd. But when we got out of the lift, the bagpipes started and there were 1000 Lions supporters cheering as we made our way down the steps and out the hotel. It was mental.

“You wouldn’t have it in any other environment. We were all in the foyer, it was very jovial, everyone was chanting ‘Lions, Lions’. We just had to sign a couple of autographs, grab our stuff and sprint. It was carnage but all in the right spirit.

“And then on the journey to the ground, it was just a sea of red everywhere. It was jaw-dropping.

“The bus pulled up on the side of the road next to a pub with 1000 people outside, partying. They spotted us, so we had to grab our bags and sprint in!

“I was a bag of nerves as we waited in the the stadium. We were put in this indoor cricket training facility and I took a moment to myself, holding the jersey. I kissed the badge and told myself that I had done it. I am going to play for the Lions.”

To wear Lions red mattered more to James than most, especially after missing out in 1997. On the day Henry announced his squad, he was too nervous to sit and wait by the radio with his Scarlets teammates.

He went to do extra weight training and it was Gareth Jenkins and Quinnell who delivered the good news.

“My father kept ringing to find out if I knew. He was stressing me out and so I kept telling him to stop calling me! He was a bag of nerves. We are a very close family and I rang him back straight away once I found out.”

The ten Wales players selected for the Tour met privately with Henry, who told them to embrace it. Weeks later, they arrived on a bus to join the rest of the squad at a training camp and were greeted by a familiar face.

“What a leader Martin Johnson was. I remember when us Welsh guys rocked up on the team bus on day one and he was there, waiting for us to get off. He was the enemy for so long but he went out of his way to greet us,” he said.

“He was not the most talkative chap but he had an aura about him, very much like Willie John. He commanded respect and when you have someone like that, you build unity. He had your back.”

Johnson led the Lions to the 2-1 win in South Africa in 1997 but Australia proved too good in 2001.

Joe Roff crossed for two tries in a 35-14 second Test victory, before a pair of late Matt Burke penalties gave the Wallabies a 29-23 win in the decider.

“I am not being egotistical but I think that was one of the great Lions squads,” added James. 

“You had Dallaglio, Hill, Wilkinson, Johnson, Robinson. You look at the names and it’s amazing. We were brimming with confidence, on top of our game and shell-shocked them in the opener.

“Australia were a little more streetwise and won. In hindsight, we should have had a couple more down days and rested up. If we’d have done that, I’ve no doubt we would have smashed them.”

A Lions series is about so much more than what happens on the pitch though. It’s about forming new relationships and friendships, four nations coming together, four groups of players becoming one.

“It is only when you get older that you reflect back and remember what an amazing experience the whole thing was.

“My first Test jersey has pride of place on the wall in my house. It’s 19 years ago but I’ll never forget it.”

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