Fran Cotton’s name is synonymous with The British & Irish Lions.
A veteran of three Tours as a player and the Team Manager for the iconic 1997 Tour, Cotton played an instrumental role in many of the greatest moments in Lions’ history.
Named as a reserve for the 1971 Tour, his first proper brush with the tourists came in 1974 when he starred for Willie John McBride’s Invincibles on their Tour of South Africa.
The fearsome England prop started all four Tests against the Springboks in a star-studded team as the Lions won the series 3-0 and finished the 22-game Tour unbeaten.
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“I looked at the team and a lot of these guys were almost your heroes in rugby union,” he said.
“Waiting for the selection, I wasn’t certain I was going to be in the team because everybody wants to play in the Tests. So that was a terrific feeling when I was selected.
“The first Test was in Cape Town so we got the series off to a good start with a win. We then went up to Pretoria and beat South Africa convincingly [the Lions won the Test 29-8].
“The third Test in Port Elizabeth was probably the biggest game of rugby that I played in my career and probably the most violent game of rugby I have ever played in my career.
“South Africa are a proud rugby nation, they are 2-0 down in a four-match series, they didn’t want to lose the series so they came out with absolutely all guns blazing.
“For 30 minutes it was a very, very tough competition and then in the second half we pulled away. The great and late JJ Williams scored two magnificent tries and we won the series.
“To win the series and not lose a game in South Africa, it will never be repeated. It was just that historic and we had a great spirit on that team and everybody worked really hard together.”
For all the highs Cotton experienced with the Lions, he also dealt with his fair share of lows as a player on the 1977 and 1980 Tours, which both ended in defeats for the tourists.
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Three years on from his first Tour, Cotton started at loosehead in three of the four Tests in New Zealand as the Lions lost a hard-fought series 3-1 to the All Blacks.
“I trained really hard in the build-up to 1977 because I wanted to go to New Zealand,” he said. “If you go to South Africa and then New Zealand as a Lion then isn’t much else more you can do.
“It was almost a completely different squad, with just some of the players who had been there in ‘74. We didn’t have the same focus and kind of unity and purpose we had ‘74.
“It was extremely disappointing because there was no doubt we should have won the series. We had the players to do it, we had a tremendous pack of forwards and dominated the All Blacks.
“In sharp contrast to ‘74 in the third Test, which was the high point in my Lions career, the low point was losing the fourth Test in New Zealand when they scored a last-minute try to win.
“I can’t tell you how disappointed I felt at the end of that game because really we had given them hell in the forwards. It was just so disappointing losing a series that really we should have won.”
It was also on the 1977 Tour where the iconic ‘Mudman’ image was taken during a match against New Zealand Juniors – a legendary photo of Cotton which summed up the conditions.
“The other thing we were hit with in ‘77 in New Zealand is it never stopped raining, it was just an unbelievably wet day in Wellington,” he recalled when asked about Colin Elsey’s picture.
“At the very last minute of the game there is a line-out right in front of the main stand and I’m at the front of the line-out looking up into the main stand, the front row were all the replacements who were all rolling over laughing at the state of us.
“And the reason they got the shot with the whites of my eyes, I’ve got my hands on my knees and I’m looking up at the stand and he took the photograph.”
Cotton was selected for the Lions again in 1980 but his Tour ended prematurely when he suffered serious chest pains after a game against the Proteas in Stellenbosch.
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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, returning home after the second Test.
“I think the injuries really caught up with the Lions in the end, we just lost so much experience in key positions. It detracted from the performance in the end but it was still a great Tour,” he said.
“Bill Beaumont did a great job as captain. It was a very, very enjoyable Tour and a happy Tour, they were a great group of lads but, at the end of the day, you are judged by the result.”
Cotton made an incredible return for club and country post-Tour before hanging up his boots in 1981, but that did not stop him from writing another chapter in his Lions story.
Asked by Syd Millar to take on the Lions management job in 1997, Cotton’s experience from 23 years earlier proved invaluable alongside Sir Ian McGeechan and Jim Telfer.
“We had a very, very experienced management group and we selected Martin Johnson as captain, who hadn’t captained any international teams at all at that stage,” he said.
“People said that was a risk but when you go to South Africa, the one thing you need to do is meet the physical challenge, if you don’t do that then they will walk all over you.
“Martin Johnson certainly fitted the bill there.”
The Lions were written off as no hopers even before they had arrived in South Africa in 1997 but Cotton helped inspire the tourists to a 2-1 series success – one that was arguably even more remarkable than its predecessor.
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“First Test, we managed to pull away in the last 10 to 15 minutes and win that which is just so important in a three-match series, you’ve got to win the first one,” he said.
“Then to go up to Durban for the second one which we knew the Springboks would come out and absolutely throw the kitchen sink at you, which was exactly what they did.
“Neil Jenkins just kept us in the game and then the famous drop-goal from Jeremy Guscott to win it. 2-0, thank you. The following on those was unbelievable, it really started in ’97.
“The first time we really noticed mass support suddenly appearing in Cape Town and Durban. It was a little bit like ‘74 in the sense that there was tremendous unity of people, they were a great group of lads to be with and they worked for one another, worked hard.
“Willie John always said to know when to work and when to play – and they certainly knew that. It was just a joy to be with them and I’m just so pleased that we ended up coming away being successful.”
Cotton’s role on the 1997 Tour cemented his status as one of the all-time Lions greats and to this day, the man himself remains incredibly proud of his achievements with the tourists.
“When you think of the people who have represented the Lions over the years, talking about some of the best rugby players in the world, so you are very aware of when it’s your turn to wear the shirt that you don’t want to let it down,” he added.
“Pulling that red shirt on with the emblem of the four nations is just so, so special and playing for the Lions is the absolute pinnacle of the game of rugby union.”