Twos-up Tommy

2009-06-13 00:00

THOMAS Pleydell Bedford would delight in the irony.

On a famous night, back in July, 1974, and in most august company, Tommy Bedford staged his one-man protest at the lack of Natal players in the Springbok team to play the British Lions; this week, head coach John Plumtree was grumbling about the lack of Springboks in his Natal team to play the British Lions.

Bedford, in front of that large gathering at a post-match British Lions reception 35 years ago, welcomed the Springbok selectors.

“I congratulate you on finally finding your way to Durban,” he said, “Welcome, welcome,” and then raised his fingers in a two-fingered salute and held the pose.

The Durban architect was angry that none of his Natal team-mates had found their way into the South African Test squad during a disastrous season when players from other provinces were going in and out the Springbok team like a dose of salts.

Dramatic wasn’t the word for Bedford’s action. Cocktail parties were a time for handshakes, politeness and cheerful conversation, not harsh political statements, and the conservative South African rugby hierarchy that day was stunned.

The extraordinary incident came at the fag-end of a long and emotional day. Bedford had been physically and mentally pummelled in Natal’s controversial, at times brutal clash against the unbeaten British Lions.

Natal, as the Sharks were in those days, met Willie John McBride’s Lions in Match 20 and a week before the fourth and final Test at Ellis Park. The series had already been lost (3-0) and with their rugby reputation in tatters, South Africans were suddenly looking to captain Bedford and Natal to burst the Lions’ bubble.

“I think it’s ironic,” said a smiling Bedford at the time, “that Natal are now being put forward as South Africa’s last hope. The last outpost of the British Empire is the last hope for South Africa.”

Briefly, it seemed that Bedford would have his impossible dream that afternoon.

They were 9-6 down with 10 minutes remaining and the Lions, who had 70% of the ball but spent much of the game kicking it away, appeared rattled. And they took it out on Bedford.

First came JPR Williams, a talented but abrasive fullback who showed on tour that he was prepared to run vast distances to join a scrap. The fist-flying Welsh doctor, who seemed eminently qualified to both inflict damage on opponents and then repair them, launched what seemed an unprovoked attack on Bedford after being tackled by him into touch. Bedford, lying in the foetal position and covering his head, was struck several times before a spectator restrained Williams.

Moments later, at the back of a lineout, Lions prop Fran Cotton flattened Bedford. The referee did nothing, but the crowd did and bottles, tins and naartjies, the standard ammunition of the rugby spectator in those days, were tossed on to King’s Park and McBride took his players to the middle of the field until order was restored.

Referee Piet Robbertse, who Bedford later said was trying to impress the Lions so that he might be appointed to handle the fourth Test, added a bizarre 11 minutes of injury time to the game and in that period Natal folded and the Lions scored 21 points for a 34-6 win.

Bedford was hurting afterwards and it certainly showed in his actions and words.

A Rhodes scholar, he had played rugby for Oxford and said British rugby had provided him with the most enjoyable moments of his career.

“But I saw another side of British rugby today and I know which I prefer,” he added darkly.

The Natal captain did keep his sense of humour. He said South Africans had been bewildered by the Lions’ excellent scrummaging on their tour. He had done his research in East London, he said, where the Lions had played their midweek game against Border just days before.

Holding up a Daily Despatch newspaper banner which read “LIONS AND GIRLS IN NUDE SCRUM”, Bedford said he had found the secret, adding that the Boks had simply been doing the wrong type of training.

JPR may have escaped the referee’s attention during the game, but later in the evening he was cornered and harangued — this time by Bedford’s wife. It certainly was a day to remember — for Williams, Bedford and and indeed everyone at that reception.

There was a further irony. A year later and Williams was back in Durban with fellow-Lions, wing JJ Williams and prop Mighty Mouse McLauchlan — playing for Natal with Bedford as their captain.

The Bloemfontein-born Bedford was a remarkable player. He weighed just over 70 kg when he made his Natal debut as a 19-year-old at a time when the Banana Boys, with small forwards, little possession but big hearts, played a daring, unique style of rugby.

Two years later, this instinctive and astonishingly quick loose forward joined the giants in the Bok pack and with Jan Ellis and Piet Greyling formed one of the Springboks’ most effective backrows.

He played 25 Tests over an eight-year period, but his loyalty to his beloved Natal was even more remarkable, with 16 years (1961-76) of service, and he became the province’s most-capped player (119 games).

It was his outspoken views against the apartheid government and those running rugby — “from their grass-chairs” — in South Africa and Natal that kept him in the headlines in his later years.

He was once a Witness columnist and always kept up a relentless attack on the game’s bosses.

Today he is settled in London and there are self-serving South African rugby administrators and interfering little men in parliament who will be relieved about that.

Bedford prompts vivid memories of a remarkable time and none is more vivid than the night of July 20, 1974. They just don’t make cocktail parties like that anymore.

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