the lion king


We’re sitting in the foyer of a plush – almost velvet – West London hotel waiting for Warren to uncork his squad for New Zealand and we’re reminiscing; specifically Dave Rogers is scratching his chin trying to work out what nine Lions’ Tours have taken out of him. It’s not often he’s adrift in a silence – generally he stops talking only when he’s drawing breath or eating and sometimes not even then – but, in fairness, there’s some serious arithmetic going on here. ‘I reckon if you add it all up I must’ve spent nearly two years of my life with the Lions,’ he says eventually, a calculation which – genuinely – seems to surprise him. ‘Bloody hell; when you think of it like that, it’s a long time, isn’t it?’

Indeed it is. In all we’re talking thirty-seven years and three tours of each of the Southern Hemisphere strongholds, starting with the 1980 Tour to South Africa. ‘I still exchange Christmas cards with players from that trip,’ he says. ‘Because, back then, we were all one party, Lions, media, everybody. We’d get to an airport and we’d share a couple of buses to the hotel. We ate together, knocked about together and got pissed together. Imagine that now, eh? I just wish I could’ve bottled that tour and poured myself glass of it every now and then in the years since. It was the time of my life.’

Certainly few can better measure the evolution – or should that be the inflation – of the British and Irish Lions. In 1980, for example, there were thirty players, eighteen matches, a manager, a coach, a doctor, a handful of scribblers and just the one snapper – Himself – who covered the entire twelve-week tour. Top to bottom, that was it. Now, of course, there are more than forty players, a battalion of backroom staff, sixteen sponsors and a media corps so vast that news conferences – perforce – are staged in hotel ballrooms.

‘Look, the Lions are very special and it’s always a privilege to tour with them. But have tours changed for the better?’ There’s another long, uncharacteristic pause. ‘Well, let’s just say they’ve changed. Look, you don’t want to come across as the old git in the corner with a pint of mild moaning about how it was ‘better in the old days’ but – let’s be honest – it probably was.’

Back in 1980 – the year Reagan was first elected, Lennon was shot and Erno Rubik unveiled his cube – Dave Rogers was working for ‘Bob Thomas Sports Photography’ based in Northampton; twenty-three-years-young with a perm and a dodgy moustache. ‘It was a ‘loose’ perm if we’re being accurate,’ he says, leaning over my laptop and trying to crib my notes. ‘But don’t put that in, for crying out loud.’

However loose the perm or dodgy the moustache, neither looked likely to be heading to South Africa that year. The Lions’ Tour of 1980 was the trip the politicians tried to scupper coming as it did just three years after the Gleneagles Agreement, a Commonwealth pact to discourage sporting links with South Africa and its apartheid regime. The Home Unions, however, decided to cock a snook at all concerned – blazers aren’t famous for taking orders from suits – and the tour went ahead. Up in Northampton the eponymous Bob Thomas smelled an opportunity.

‘We were strictly a sports photography outfit but the politics – clearly – made it all the more interesting. And Bob was a smart man when it came to thinking outside the box. John Hopkins at ‘The Sunday Times’ wanted to combine a book about the tour with a look at apartheid so Bob did a deal with him for me to take the pictures. John was a great bloke to work and to travel with and a lot of the stuff we did was cloak and dagger because we were trying to get to places where the government didn’t want us to go; in fact Frank Keating from ‘The Guardian’ had his visa pulled for trying to do much the same thing.’

‘For example, you were supposed to have a permit to get into the townships – there were guards and patrols everywhere and we got chased out of one by police with dogs – but you could always find someone to sneak you in through a back door. So we got into Soweto, Sharpville, Crossroads near Cape Town and Ibhayi just outside Port Elizabeth, which was the worst of the lot. An Irish priest showed us round and I’ll never forget that place. There was a family of eight – Mum, Dad and six kids – living in a burnt out car, the kind of picture that spoke a thousand words. It was just unbelievable.’

‘You know, we all took a bit of stick for going on that tour to South Africa and I understood that. Even friends of mine said we shouldn’t be going. But I’m a great believer in making up your own mind and you can’t do that if you’ve not been there and seen the place with your own eyes and I think a lot of the shots I took with John made a difference. It was almost more a news assignment than a rugby one.’ 

Soweto Township ChildrenSOWETO – JUNE 1980

‘And for me it exposed some glaring hypocrisies about the boycott when you’d drive through, say, Jo’burg and find Barclays Bank on one corner and a BP garage on the other. Here were a bunch of rugby players getting pilloried for playing sport for nothing while big business was down here making big bucks. That was an eye-opener for a start.’

‘Anyway, we got to meet Desmond Tutu and Cheeky Watson and we tried to see Nelson Mandela but couldn’t get anywhere near Robben Island, with or without a permit. We even went up to Namibia – it wasn’t called Namibia then, it was still South West Africa – to the Caprivi Strip where the South African Army were knee-deep in a war with SWAPO and the MPLA. We don’t tend to do too much combat photography on tour these days’.

It’s almost impossible to imagine how wide Dave Rogers’ eyes must have been back then; early twenties, frontlines in warzones, dodging armed police in townships and all this covering a sport and a country he scarcely knew. ‘I’d done a bit of rugby at the Saints and at Leicester but I was a football man, really. In fact the only Lion I knew was a bloke called Clive Woodward who was the East Midlands’ rep for ‘Rank-Xerox’ and used to pop into the agency in Northampton to flog us photocopiers.’

‘I remember the first day we arrived in South Africa, I’d checked in to the hotel in Vanderbjilpark and just flopped out on the bed when the door burst open and the Swansea centre, Dai Richards, came in. ‘What’re you doing in my room?’ he says. Turned out that the dozy receptionist had gone down the list – D. Richards/D Rogers – and given me the wrong key. So – brilliant – that was my first introduction to a British and Irish Lion.‘

‘And then that night there was a brai and a beer for everyone on the trip to say hello to each other. And I’ll tell you this, I left that brai at ten o’clock, I went back to my room – my real room – and I cried. I just remember thinking, what am I doing here and how am I going to last twelve weeks of this?’

But the next morning the Irish – ever the most perceptive and warm-hearted of people – rode to the rescue. ‘I went down to breakfast and got dragged to a table by Karl Johnston (‘Irish Press’), Ned van Esbeck (‘Irish Times’) and Sean Diffley (‘Irish Independent’) and I had a ball with those three guys for the rest of the tour. They were just brilliant and looked after me like a son. I didn’t phone home for six weeks. My parents thought I’d gone missing.’


The Tour itself was a narrow squeak. Managed by Syd Millar, coached by Noel Murphy and captained by Bill Beaumont, the Lions won all fourteen provincial matches but went down 3-1 in the Tests. ‘My most vivid rugby memory is the Third Test in Port Elizabeth where it rained and rained and when it stopped raining, it rained some more. In all honesty, we should’ve won that series. The First Test in Cape Town was nip and tuck (26-22), we took a bit of a hiding, truth be told, in Bloemfontein in the Second Test (26-19) but we should definitely have won the Third (12-10) and we definitely did win the Fourth in Pretoria (13-17). The margins in South Africa always seem to be pretty thin.’

But the real memories of the Tour are of the people and the adventures. Certainly it was a trip where discretion was a virtue. ‘One player got a fire extinguisher in the face during a night out – not clobbered with it just someone letting it off under his nose – and that was him out of the tour for a week. It didn’t do much for his good looks but the writers – who were in the same bar and just as bladdered – put him down on the sick list as a tight hamstring.’

‘And that was the tour where everyone in the media – there were, what, fifteen of us – adopted a couple of Lions to help them out with their bills. My two were John Carleton and Mike Slemen – I think it was Mike Slemen; it’s a long time ago – and once a week they’d come to my room and phone home on my tab. Those were the days when an international call wasn’t cheap and their expenses just didn’t cover it.’

‘The tour, though, was just stuffed full of characters. Rodney O’Donnell was a full back from St Mary’s College in Dublin – lovely bloke, built out of bricks – but the most superstitious man I’ve ever met. He was a stickler for ladders and triangles and he – seriously – wouldn’t walk on the cracks in the pavement. We used to leave ladders propped up against his hotel room door and stick lines of gaffer tape on the carpet in the corridors so he couldn’t get out of his room. Mind you, on Friday 13th June – trust me – we never saw him. He never left his bed and that was the day before the Second Test.‘

‘Speaking of beds, at night time he’d pull the blankets down and neatly fold them at the bottom and then he’d have to jump in without touching the blankets and if he did, he’d get out, remake the bed and start all over again. And when the opposition kicked a conversion or a penalty he’d catch the ball and throw it back over the bar to undo the bad luck.’

‘The other thing I remember about Rodney was that he always had to wear shorts that were a size too big. I don’t know why but he insisted on it. So, of course, we got to one match – it was the Junior Springboks at the Wanderers ground in Jo’burg – and the only pair of shorts left were his actual size and it was either wear those or run out half naked. So – reluctantly – he played in his ‘normal’ shorts, tackled Danie Gerber, went down in a heap and was stretchered off.’

At the time it was thought O’Donnell had simply jarred his neck or – perhaps – pinched a nerve but his teammate and close friend – Dr John O’Driscoll – had his suspicions. O’Driscoll was right and it was only an operation the next day that saved O’Donnell from paralysis. He ended up with a segment of bone from his hip grafted onto his neck where, fortunately, it fused; less fortunately – poor bloke – it was the end of his rugby career. ‘So he’d damaged his sixth and seventh vertebrae – total 13 – tackling Gerber – their number 13 – and was in hospital getting fixed for thirteen days. I think he still blames it all on being forced to wear the wrong pair of shorts and when you add it all up, maybe he was right.’

In fact John O’Driscoll, the London Irish flanker, turned out to be worth his weight in gold bullion on that trip. ‘We were boarding a plane at Jo’burg and there was a Kiwi photographer with us called Miles Bishop who collapsed on the top of the stairs as he was getting on the plane and John came running down the aisle and looked after him. He’d had an angina attack and we carted him off to hospital and flew down to Cape Town with him later the next day.’


Even without angina, a photographer’s lot was hard labour back in the eighties. ‘I used to take a trunk, an old metal trunk with me on tour, like I was going on a cruise or heading off to boarding school; photographic paper, chemicals, dishes, enlarger, yards of film, basically everything you needed to take the shots and turn your hotel room into a processing lab. So wherever I went I had to hang black polythene sheets and bin liners over the windows to make a dark room. It was like living in a coalhole.’

‘And then, before I checked out, I had to shift the furniture round the room to hide all the stains on the carpet from the fixer and chemicals I used to spill on the floor. The bed and the tables and chairs where never in the same place when I left. God knows what the cleaners must have thought I was up to. But the fixer was essentially a bleach and really toxic. Never mind the carpets, you’d get through a fair few pairs of jeans on a Lions’ Tour.’

‘The only good thing about that trunk was that it got lighter as the tour went on but in the first couple of weeks you’d quickly find out whether you had any friends. But even then it was so big that I didn’t always manage to get it into the room. At one point, in some dingy hotel or another, I remember it had to sleep in the corridor for a week. Couldn’t get the damn thing through the door.’

And then there was the palaver of not just getting the shots but getting them back to London for the papers. ‘You’d camp out pitch-side, shoot whatever you could and then – at the end of the match – scarper back to your hotel, process your film and make a couple of ten by eight prints. Then you were back downstairs to the car and you’d drive like the clappers to the Main Post Office. The one in Johannesburg was on Jeppe Street with a massive, oak door and a machine called a ‘Muirhead’ which was about the size of a small car and which was the only way of getting the pictures back.’

‘So you dropped your stuff there and – if you were lucky – they’d send the pictures to the Cable and Wireless Offices on The Embankment where the shots would be reversed into a five by four negative. Bob Thomas would then pick them up, get them printed somewhere locally and then drive them round to every newspaper office in Fleet Street and Holborn. So if all went smoothly – and it often didn’t – you could get the pictures back in time for the later editions, although the stress would be enough to kill you.’

‘Nowadays, of course, I can send pictures direct from my camera pitch-side as soon as I’ve taken them and they can be back at the office, cropped, edited, and out within minutes. I think ‘Getty’s’ first picture of Usain Bolt winning the 100metres in Rio was ready to go in forty-four seconds flat. Not quite as quick as Bolt but very nearly.’

‘Then again in some ways it’s almost more stressful now because the technology’s that good people almost expect the picture straight away. In the old days – back in 1980 – they’d give you a shape to shoot – landscape, portrait – depending on what kind of hole they’d left on the page and you had to shoot that shape. So you could have the best picture you’ve ever seen but if was the wrong aspect ratio it wouldn’t get in and you’d get bollocked. What do they say? All the news that’s fit to print and all the news that fitted to print? It was something like that.’

Aside from rugby, Dave’s covered Olympic Games, Football World Cups, Ryder Cups – you name it – but there are still times even now when he pinches himself thinking about how far he’s come. Dudley – Doodlaaaay – in the West Midlands is famous for little more than metal-bashing – ‘we made the anchor and chain for the Titanic’ – and for Lenny Henry who used to buy his sandwiches at ‘The Talbot Inn’, which was the pub run by Dave’s Dad. ‘When I was a kid we’d go to Wolves and I’d see all these photographers and TV cameraman running about and I thought, I’d like to do that, despite the fact I didn’t have a camera and I’d never taken a picture. Pipe dream. The Careers Advisor told me to find a sensible job.’

Sport. Golf. The Ryder Cup. Kiawah Island, South Carolina. September 1991. USA 14 1/2 v Europe 13 1/2. Europe's Severiano Ballesteros (left) shakes hands in celebration with partner Jose Maria Olazabal, as they are cast in shadow by the sunset.‘FIND A SENSIBLE JOB’? HMMM. LOS SENORES CELEBRATE YET ANOTHER POINT FOR TEAM EUROPE AT THE RYDER CUP – THE OCEAN COURSE, KIAWAH ISLAND, 27 SEPTEMBER 1991

Nevertheless he turned eighteen and applied to do an NCTJ course in Press Photography; by sheer fluke it was just down the road at Wednesbury College where they offered ten places – nationally – each year. ‘I got an interview – God knows how – and the bloke said, where’s your portfolio, then? I said I’d left it on the bus. He looked at me sort of sideways. I didn’t get in.’

‘So the next week I started as a trainee accountant at EC Payter who were Aluminum Alloy Fabricators based on an industrial estate in Tipton. Seven pounds fifty a week, it was, really glamorous. You started at eight, you left at five thirty and you had half-an-hour for lunch when everyone sat down and played ‘Scrabble’ over their sandwiches. In working hours, you could talk only about work. Chit-chat wasn’t allowed.’

If there were ever a man less suited to a job where ‘chit-chat’ isn’t allowed, it’d be Dave Rogers. He is a banquet of words. So having started on the Monday, he resigned on the Friday and got home to find a letter on the mantle-piece from Wednesbury College asking whether he could join the Press Photography course the following week. ’One of the ten had dropped out at short-notice and maybe because I was local and wouldn’t need to find any digs, they offered me the spare place. I still didn’t have a camera so I went out with my parents and bought a Pentax Spotmatic 500 and spent the rest of the weekend learning how to take the lens cap off. It was fate, wasn’t it? I mean, it was twelve miles to college but the 245 bus went from my front door to theirs in one hit, £4 a month on a West Midlands Travelcard. It couldn’t have been better.’

Fourteen months on a course from which he graduated with a gold leaf and cluster got him a job working for ‘The West Midlands Press’ (he was now up to a princely seventeen pounds a week) who were part of the Birmingham Post and Mail Group, based in Royal Sutton Coldfield. ‘The first big thing I did there was the 1975 League Cup Final at Wembley between Aston Villa and Norwich City which Villa won 1-0. I couldn’t drive so my dad took me down – nervous as hell as I was – and there was me, nineteen-years-old, on the pitch at Wembley, 100,000 crowd, snapping away on the Villa lap of honour wishing I was back in Tipton doing the accounts for a bunch of aluminum alloy makers.’

Three years on from Sutton Coldfield he was in Northampton with Bob Thomas and three years on from South Africa, he was again packing his bags with the Lions. ‘1983 was my first trip to New Zealand; that was the Ciaran Fitzgerald tour, the one the Lions lost four nil. Fitzgerald was a decent man, don’t get me wrong, but he was a hooker who couldn’t find his jumpers. Ciaran threw seven skew lineouts in the Second Test and the Lions lost 9-0, the crazy thing being that the best hooker in the Northern Hemisphere – Colin Deans – was sitting up in the stands twiddling his thumbs. The Lions actually outscored New Zealand by two tries to one in the Third Test in Dunedin but still lost and the Fourth Test in Auckland was a 38-6 drubbing. I think it’s still the Lions’ worst ever Test defeat.’

It was a tough tour. For a start it never stopped raining and New Zealand seemed to be permanently shut. But then New Zealand always seems to be shut. ‘I remember a few years later going out for a meal once in Whanganui with Higgy (the esteemed and much-loved Alistair Hignell) and the woman in the restaurant said, ‘blimey, you two are eating late, aren’t you?’ It was seven o’clock. We were stuck in Whanganui for a week and we played snooker every night in the Conservative Club next door. That was as exciting as it got.‘


‘But the rugby and the rain apart, it wasn’t a bad trip. Willie John McBride was the Tour Manager and ahead of the Third Test in Dunedin he held a news conference in his bedroom. Seriously, can you imagine that now? I remember one day we had a sort of country pursuits day – players, media, everybody – somewhere in the backwoods of Canterbury, the kind of thing that just never happens anymore; fishing and shooting mainly and one player, who’d best remain nameless, bagged four wild boar. No wonder they were wild. I’d have been livid.’

Terrible – truly terrible – jokes and a braying laugh have long been David’s hallmark; I swear he even chuckles in a thick, Black Country accent. He says all the noise is because he‘s naturally shy but, if that’s true, it doesn’t seem to make anyone any less forgiving. ‘Look, you need a sense of humour doing this job,’ he says, and so you do although – modestly – his favourite Lions’ one-liner isn’t one of his but one of Tony Roche’s. Rochey – the peerless ‘Sun’ correspondent – had arrived, parched, at the ‘Rotorua Motor Lodge Inn’ on the 2005 tour and asked for a glass of red wine. ‘We don’t serve alcohol, sir,’ said the bloke at reception, ‘but there are lots of bars in town.’ Rochey skewered him with a withering stare. ‘My good man,’ he said, ‘if this is an Inn then why do I have to go Out to get a fucking drink?’

Dave Roger’s first winning tour was in 1989 in Australia, timely for all concerned given the Lions hadn’t won a series anywhere for fifteen years. ‘89 was a really good tour. There were some great characters on that trip – Donal Lenihan, ‘Cooch’ Chilcott, Scott Hastings, Rory Underwood, John Jeffrey, Dai Young – and I remember all of us pitching up in Perth in the first week to find we were staying at this swish resort with its own casino. The players had about fourpence a week in allowances and were down to their underpants on the first night. They couldn’t resist the roulette. ‘

‘That was also the tour I got roped into playing for the Lions’ Rugby Writers against the Australian Rugby Writers. Rumour was the Australians had press-ganged a couple of Ellas in flimsy circumstances so I wasn’t too keen but they promised to stick me on the wing and not pass me the ball. In the end my plane was delayed getting into wherever it was, Tony Roche took my place and after ten minutes he broke two fingers and two ribs when someone tackled him. It was a narrow escape.’

The good news – professionally – was that by 1989 you could send pictures back home down a phone line which – understandably – had revolutionised the business and saved a fortune in carpets. ‘Russell Cheyne (another fabled sports photographer) had a hotel room in Sydney where the phone socket was behind the headboard and the headboard was screwed to the wall. So he rang reception, asked for a screwdriver and, five minutes later, a waiter knocked on the door and minced in with a tray. ‘Your Vodka and Orange, sir, where shall I put it?’

1993 saw the Lions back in New Zealand, beaten in the First Test in Christchurch but winners in the Second Test in Wellington courtesy of a try from Rory Underwood who’d skinned John Kirwan to score, a run famously described by his brother Tony as ‘a Ferrari overtaking a Lada.’ Rory didn’t drink and tried to avoid big nights out with the likes of Richards and Winterbottom who’d generally badger him to down twenty pints so, since he was keen on photography, Dave Rogers invited him to head back to the hotel and send his winning try down the line to London.

‘But in those days you still had to ring the office to make sure they’d got the pictures so I got Rory to call London to check that the picture had arrived in one piece. ‘Who’s this, then?’ says The Office, expecting me on the line and not recognising Underwood’s voice. ‘It’s Rory,’ said Rory. There was a frown down the line. ‘Rory bloody who?’ said The Office. ‘Rory Underwood,’ said Rory Underwood. There was another pause in London. ‘Yeah, right, stick Rogers on, will you, whoever you are and stop arsing about?’ In he end I had to take a second picture of him sending the first picture before they’d believe that Rory Underwood had just sent them his own try.’


What’s instructive when you sit and chat about Lions past – and this isn’t just true of Dave Rogers – is how the anecdotes begin to peter out the further down the track you go. ‘I think 1997 in South Africa was the last, Great Lions’ Tour and not just because they won, which always helps, but because it was the last tour we all truly felt a part of. Woody, Lawrence, Jason, Scotty Gibbs, Jerry; they all made us feel welcome and looked after us. Look, we don’t want to walk down the street holding hands with them or get in the way, just not be treated like pariahs. And in ’97 we were – all – one team.’

The surprise package of that tour – both on and off the pitch – was John Bentley; wing, social secretary and infectious extrovert. ‘Bentos got drafted into the team for the Second Test and we needed a shot. I knew there was a snake park virtually opposite the hotel so I asked him whether he’d pose with an African Python. He took a bit of persuading because he hates snakes and, in truth, when they brought out this thing and draped it over his shoulders, he and most of us snappers were absolutely petrified.’

‘Anyway the snake slithered about a bit and his tail disappeared up Bentos’ shorts, which was a dodgy moment, but then it started wrapping itself round his torso and I thought, blimey, he’s going for the big squeeze here. And at that moment, just when Bentos’ eyeballs were starting to pop, the Lions PR guy says, ‘Bentos, move the snake, it’s covering the logo on the shirt’ to which Bentos replied, ’hey, if it’s that important, you fucking move it.’


2001 he remembers, chiefly, for £30,000 worth of kit getting nicked on Manley Beach – ‘I had to borrow gear for the last month and it was crap’ – and for the Red Army at the First Test in Brisbane; 2009 was the Field of Brais round the back of King’s Park, Durban after the First Test where the Lions’ shirts and pith helmets floated through the smoke for as far as the eye could see – that truly was extraordinary – and 2013 was the tour where Sky Sports News’ perfectly-formed but petite Gail Davis couldn’t reach the view during a live inject from Noosa Beach and so stood on an ‘all-fours‘ Dave Rogers to make the shot work. The marks from her stiletto heels still haven’t quite disappeared from his back.

‘2005, though, that was the worst Lions’ trip, absolutely no question about that and I’m not just talking results. It’s rare that a Lions’ Tour goes sour but it can happen and it did in New Zealand that year. I just didn’t get on with Alistair Campbell who should’ve stuck to Downing Street because he had no idea about rugby, its traditions or the Lions.’

‘That was also the tour where the separation between the Lions and the media first became really obvious. It was a ‘them and us’ trip and, to some extent, it’s stayed that way since and I find that very sad. You just don’t get to know people the way you used to and I don’t blame the players for that because – generally – when they’ve time they’re as good as gold. But that’s the point. There just isn’t the time anymore, is there?’

‘Yes, the tour’s changed, it’s bigger, more unwieldy and social media can get a bit scary from a management perspective, I understand all that, but I came away from Australia last time feeling as though I didn’t really know anybody any better than when I arrived. And given what the Lions used to be about, I just think that’s a shame.’

South Africa v British & Irish Lions - 2nd TestTHE RED ARMY – SECOND TEST, LOFTUS VERSFELD, PRETORIA, 27 JUNE 2009

‘But for all that I do still enjoy touring, the travel, the hotels, the life on the road, which is just as well I suppose given how much of it there is. And of course Claire – Mrs. Rogers – enjoys seeing the back of me on a regular basis, although she thinks I pick up far too many bad habits in hotels, what with beds magically getting made and rooms vacuumed and dusted every day. You can very easily get used to the cleaning fairies.’

‘But in terms of touring there’s only two ’rules of the road’ really – Barry Newcombe of ‘The Sunday Express’ first taught me this years ago – one being always get to breakfast because it might be the only decent meal you get all day – that and your only chance to find out what the hell’s going on – and two, always pack the night before just in case you end up getting slaughtered somewhere and you can’t find your grollies when you stagger back in the next morning.’

‘And the one thing I’d add to that is always listen to the locals. Unusually for New Zealand, the weather on the 2005 Tour was pretty good but ahead of the First Test in Christchurch – the one where BOD got done – there was a storm forecast, which we ignored because the morning of the game was so beautiful. And then of course just before kick-off down it came and it was raining steel sheets and ice. There was a group of four Lions’ fans – Scots wearing kilts and no tops – and if they survived the game, I’ll eat my camera strap. That’s the coldest I’ve ever been in my life let alone on a Lions Tour.’

But then near-death experiences are often part and parcel of the Lions’ experience. ‘When we went to the Caprivi Strip in Namibia back in 1980, we flew up from Windhoek in a couple of six-seater Cessnas and the night before we flew back, there was a brai and a few beers – there’s always a brai and a few beers in Africa – and the two pilots were the last to leave at three in the morning pissed as rats. I’d no problem with that other than that we were taking off at eight.’

‘So the first plane wobbles down the runway – it wasn’t a runway it was a clearing in a jungle – and I’m up the front in the second plane where the pilot’s looking a shilling short. Anyway we take off and he loses all his instruments. Kaput. Got nothing to guide him. So he radios to the other bloke up ahead who says, no problem, follow me, I’m up above you. So we’re all straining to see through the windows to find this other plane and while we’re all leaning back looking up, the bloody pilot – unwittingly – is pushing the joystick – the control column thing – away from him and the plane’s gently heading down instead of up. I reckon we were about five yards off the tree line when he suddenly wakes up and yanks the column back. Two more seconds and we’d have been in the jungle with the monkeys.’

But, mercifully, he made it back in one piece and indeed, thirty-seven years later, no one has spent longer on safari with the Lions. Jim Telfer has done four tours, (likewise Neil Jenkins, Rob Howley and Graham Rowntree) Mike Gibson and Syd Millar five, Willie-John and Dr. James Robson – lovely man – six each and Ian McGeechan seven. Beyond them, you have Stephen Jones of ‘The Sunday Times’ who’s done eight and Dave Rogers on nine alongside the BBC’s venerable Ian Robertson, although – on count-back – it seems DR’s done two more Lions’ Tests than IR, so the photographer just about nicks it in a photo finish.


‘Then again, Robbo – famously – very nearly spent the night with Elizabeth Taylor and there’s no way I can match that. Don’t ask. It’s a long story. Although I did once get a Christmas card from Diego Maradona. I was shooting some stuff with him in 1981 and we got on pretty well and then blow me down, that Christmas he sent me a card. I kept it in a drawer until the World Cup quarter-final in Mexico City in ’86 but once the ‘Hand of God’ goal went in, I dug it out and ripped it up. Look, if I’ve done a bit of time with the Lions and I’m allowed to feel proud of hanging around like a bad smell for nigh on forty years then, yes, I feel quite proud. It’s been a privilege and I sure Robbo would say the same.’

‘I think looking back South Africa’s always been my favourite tour because I just love the country, the politics fascinate me, the history of the place is all around you and because it holds such special memories. 1997 was right up there but 1980 was the tour I’ll always cherish, not just because it was the first but because it was all so vivid. And outside of the Lions there was the 1995 World Cup Final – Mandela, Pienaar – when I remember driving back to the hotel through Hillbrow where this amazing ‘Rainbow Nation’ – I love that phrase – was dancing in the streets. I never thought I see that because back in 1980 the whites cheered for the ‘Boks and everyone else cheered for the Lions. One of the happiest days of my life, that was.‘

‘But then it’s all really about the people, isn’t it, certainly on a Lions’ Tour. James Robson’s a fabulous man and a wonderful tourist and I’ll miss The Doctor given he’s not there this time. Colin Deans, Roger Baird, Rory obviously: see, most of those blokes are Scots who I’d never even have met let alone known but for the Lions. I suppose Johnno was always my hero, mind. Just a barnstormer, dead straight, balls of iron and if he went in first you’d happily go right after him.’

‘My favourite Lions’ picture? That’s always tricky because sometimes it’s the effort you make to get a shot that makes it special rather than the shot itself. I suppose the one of Jerry and Geech in Durban after the Second Test in 1997, when Jerry’s drop goal had won the series and he saw me and pulled that wonderful face. I’d known him and got on well with him for nigh on a decade so it was almost as though it was just the two of us and no camera. It was a great night.’


He reckons he’ll probably take some thirty thousand shots in New Zealand, which is a decent shift given that’s, what, five hundred or so pictures a day. ‘Will it be my last tour? I hope not. I’m only sixty and I’ve no plans to retire. I’d definitely like to do South Africa in 2021 and maybe, who knows, start and finish in the same place. But I enjoy it. I really enjoy it. So why stop?’

His tenth trip with the Lions is his fifteenth – yes, fifteenth – tour of duty in New Zealand and if you want the full list, it reads: ’83 Lions, ’85 England, ’87 RWC, ’93 Lions, ’96 Scotland, ’96 Tri-Nations, ’98 England, ’99 Tri-Nations, ’03 England, ’04 England, ’05 Lions, ’08 England, ’11 RWC, ’14 England. Hopefully he’ll be able to find his way about.

‘As long as it’s quieter than the Scotland Tour of New Zealand in 1996, I don’t mind. We were only there a month but the hotel caught fire in the first week, a volcano erupted when we were in Rotorua – Mount Ruapehu – covering Craig Chalmers in ash, we were snowbound in the Southern Alps and it rained so hard in the final week that Auckland was underwater. One promise I’ve made to myself when I do retire is to go back to New Zealand in the bloody summer. I’d love to see what the place looks like when I’m not holding an umbrella and my underpants are dry.’


26 APRIL 2017



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