From listening to The British & Irish Lions on his radio as a teen to becoming a three-time tourist and breaking a Lions record, Graham Price’s life has been inextricably intertwined with the famous red jersey.
A Welsh Schools champion at shot and discuss, Price started playing rugby at West Monmouth Grammar School before making a name for himself at Pontypool Rugby Club.
He made his first-team bow at the age of 18 and under the guidance of Lion #406 Ray Prosser, formed part of the famous “Viet Gwent” front row alongside Bobby Windsor and Charlie Faulkner.
“We had quite a bad reputation in Welsh circles in those days for the style of play,” said Price.
“When Ray Prosser came back from the ’59 Lions Tour, he was so impressed with the way New Zealand were playing the game that when he took over as coach he brought in their methods.
“It was rather unique in Wales at the time and it didn’t go down all that well with a lot of the other clubs because it involved a bit of… brutality, I suppose is the word that could be used.
“We were quite robust in the way we put our point across on the field.”
Viet Gwent monopolise Wales pack
With Prosser at the helm and Price learning his trade, Pontypool became a force in Welsh rugby and international recognition soon followed as the club monopolised the country’s front row.
Price made his debut in the 1975 Five Nations before helping Wales secure the Grand Slam in 1976 but despite his rise to prominence, the 1977 Lions Tour still felt like a distant dream.
“Wales were doing quite well at the time and on the last few Lions Tours, Wales had provided a large number of tourists so there was always this hope that we might get included,” he said.
“You never take anything for granted and it wasn’t until I received that letter on the doormat on the Monday morning after the last international of that Five Nations that I knew I was going.
“It was a tremendous experience. When I started playing international rugby that was my ambition and I didn’t really think about the Lions, it was just about playing for Wales.
“We used to say we’d give our right arm to play for Wales and that was it. The Lions as far as I was concerned was something I couldn’t aspire to, that was what other people did.
“I used to wake up in the early hours of the morning and tune my transistor radio to listen into the match commentary of the Lions playing in New Zealand on the ’71 and ’66 Tours.
“I listened to them playing at famous grounds such as Carisbrook, Lancaster Park, Eden Park and then, in South Africa, places like Ellis Park and Newlands – that’s where other people played.
“The fact that I ended up getting on the Lions Tour was overwhelming really.”
“Finest three-and-a-half months of my career”
His first Tour to New Zealand ended in a closely-fought 3-1 series defeat and while Price still feels it could have gone either way, he relished every moment of his first Lions experience.
“Wearing the great jersey that so many great players had worn in the past, it was overwhelming to put it on for the first time,” he said.
“You had players like Gareth Edwards, David Duckham and Ian McLauchlan and people like that, Fran Cotton as well, it was really a moving experience.
“Looking back on the ’77 Tour, it was the finest three-and-a-half months of my rugby career really. It was tremendous and I ended up playing in all four of the Tests.
“We were unfortunate in the way we lost the series but we had so many opportunities that were left untaken, if we had taken those opportunities who know what would have happened.”
Missed opportunities prove costly in 1980
Price was again selected for the Lions for the trip to South Africa three years later and played in all four Tests – scoring a try in the series opener against the Springboks – although the Tour ended in another 3-1 defeat.
“It was a totally different Tour as the two countries are like chalk and cheese,” he said.
“That was another series that got away from us, missed opportunities. It seemed to be the same as when I went back to New Zealand with the ’83 Lions, it all hinges on the first Test.
“That was my experience. If you beat the home side in the first Test, it puts all sorts of thoughts in their head – whether they have the right side or not – and puts you on the front foot.
“We were never in that situation – we could have won them but it just didn’t happen.”
With the end of his international career nigh, Price fell out of favour for Wales in the build-up to the 1983 Tour to New Zealand before winning his 41st and last cap for his country.
Price had no reason to worry, however, and became the first and only player to feature in a record 12 consecutive Tests for the Lions as the tourists were beaten 4-0 by the All Blacks.
Record-breaking Price makes Lions history
“The problem in the run-up was that I was dropped from the Welsh team for one match and that always puts doubts in your mind but I kept my fingers crossed,” Price explained.
“I did my best when I came back and I was selected. Then I went to play in the four Tests again and things worked out in the end. It was quite dry in ’83 and that suited our backs more.
“We had talented backs but it was another Test series where we could have won the first Test and put them on the back foot but we didn’t take our opportunities and that was the way it went.”
Price was unaware of his record-breaking feat for the Lions at the time and with Alun Wyn Jones sitting on nine consecutive Tests, his achievement could be equalled on next year’s Tour.
But whether Jones manages to join his fellow Welshman in the history books or not, the legend of Price will forever be etched in Lions folklore alongside the very best to don the red jersey.
“Playing 12 consecutive Tests, when you look at the players who had the previous records, Willie John McBride played 17 Tests, Gareth Edwards had played ten Tests,” he added.
“It is amazing really to think I have my name alongside them, it’s quite humbling really.
“It’s a different thing nowadays. Alun Wyn Jones has already been on three Tours so this Tour will be his fourth Tour and if he does equal it, it will be a better record than mine.
“I got mine on three consecutive Tours but then you could say there were previous Tours to mine when you could play in six consecutive Tests, so it’s swings and roundabouts I suppose.”