OBITUARY: John Dawes was ‘one of the gigantic figures of Welsh rugby’ and had a brilliant tactical mind
John Dawes flew back to London from Paris on Sunday 28 March 1971 for what the rugby world expected to be his anointing as the first Welshman to captain the Lions.
Instead, it turned out to be the longest day of his life, waiting for white smoke to come out of the chimney of the East India Club, where the Four Home Unions had entered into a conclave to choose the 30 players and their leader.
Despite returning with a Grand Slam for getting Wales to navigate the Stade Colombes the day before, Dawes refused from the start to believe he would get the job. His uncertainty grew every hour.
Former Wales and Lions star John Dawes died Friday at the age of 80 after a long illness
The Welshman captain coached his country to Grand Slam glory in a glittering career
“I must have had about 10,000 calls that day from people asking if I had heard anything,” he said. As time went on, I prepared for the worst. I was 30 years old and I had almost convinced myself that they had chosen someone else. ‘
Sunday had turned Monday before he received the call from tour manager Doug Smith asking, in the quirky, old-fashioned way, if he would be willing to accept their invitation to take on the captain of the Lions.
For Dawes, ‘Syd’ to his teammates, the ultimate reward came with the ultimate challenge: winning a test series in New Zealand.
Before the end of that glorious summer half a century ago, the schoolteacher from the old ironworks town of Abercarn took the lions to where they had never been and have never been since. They beat the All Blacks in their own backyard over a series of four tests and they did it, what’s more, the grand way.
As a teenager, Dawes used his hilly surroundings to go for a run every day to build up his fitness
Dawes, who died Friday at the age of 80 after a long illness, had made the most unlikely journey from a cairn in his valley to the ascent of Everest and any other European summit along the way.
As a teenager in the 1950s, his imagination was sparked by Australian miler Herb Elliott’s rigorous routine of running up and down sand dunes. Surrounded by heaps of rock in his corner of the South Wales basin, Dawes made do with the steepest he could find.
“There was a tip between Newbridge and Abercarn that was so steep that every time I got to the top my legs felt so weak I couldn’t control it,” he recalled years later. ‘I went up and down ten times in a row and went home and looked as if I had spent all day by the coal pile.
‘I think I was lucky because there were no distractions – no tennis courts, no golf courses, no swimming pools. I ran every day because Herb Elliott inspired me. Reading about him taught me the importance of what it means to be really fit. ‘
His innate talent for tactics made him an excellent player, captain and coach throughout his career
Dawes may not have had a pace, but the gods blessed him with supreme decisiveness and, just as important, an innate talent for strategy and tactics, which explained why his teams outwitted their opponents more often than not.
He made his Test debut in 1964 when his London Welsh team started playing an exciting brand of rugby. Wales and the Lions followed, all three revolving around the same midfield general.
As captain and later coach, Dawes never gave the slightest impression of confusion. Sir Gareth Edwards remembered him as “always calm personified in the midst of the chaos of the test arena.”
“People don’t understand the value of having someone like that by your side, someone who can see the bigger picture and calm everyone down,” Edwards said.
John was a fantastic captain and coach, one of the great figures of Welsh rugby of every era. He wasn’t the fastest player or the most elusive, but everyone around him benefited from his amazing skill and distribution. ‘
Sir Gareth Edwards paid tribute to Dawes as ‘one of the gigantic figures of Welsh rugby of every era’
Style was important to Dawes, without ever blinding him to the basic tenet of winning Test rugby. He could be pragmatic if the occasion called for it, never more than just before the last game of the Five Nations, France in 1970 in Cardiff.
A win would give Wales a share of the title. Phil Bennett, a late substitute for the injured Barry John, recounts how incessant rain had forced Dawes into a late tactical overhaul: “About an hour before kickoff, he said,“ Just kick the ball into the corner. Their backs are faster than ours, but that’s how we’re going to win the game ”. We did – 6/11. ‘
London Welsh described his death as’ a seismic loss to the London Welsh family and the entire rugby community around the world. We will remember one of the real greats of all time and one of ours’.
After winning more Grand Slams as Wales’ head coach, Dawes returned to New Zealand in that capacity with the Lions, losing the 1977 series 3-1 at the end of a tour in stark contrast to the triumphant six years earlier.
That his death should have occurred within a week or two of the 50th anniversary of the day he set out on the greatest adventure of all adds even more poignancy to his passing
The 1977 Lions tour was not as successful as the historic series against the All Blacks in 1971