50 years on - forward Malcolm Reilly recalls how he almost missed Great Britain’s finest hour

“I was lucky to stay on the tour as I got into loads of trouble; I was a bit fiery at the time.”

The latter part of that statement might come as a bit of an understatement to anyone who faced Malcolm Reilly in his pomp – on or off the field.

Today marks the 50th anniversary of Great Britain’s 21-17 third Test win over Australia at Sydney Cricket Ground – when the star-studded Lions secured a series victory and regained the Ashes.

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Reilly, the formidable Castleford loose forward who was just 22 at the time, manages to chuckle to himself at the realisation it is now fully half-a-century ago.

Deeply patriotic, though, it is painful having to acknowledge that 1970 was also, of course, the last time Great Britain won it.

Celebrating on the field that day, rarely could Reilly have thought no British player would feel the same joy and emotion for at least another 50 years.

“We expected to win that series and, if we’d have lost, we’d have been pretty damned disappointed,” he told The Yorkshire Post, recalling a 24-game tour of Australia and New Zealand which incorporated just one defeat – the first Test against the Kangaroos – and 22 wins, New South Wales forcing a draw.

“It was a big achievement and it’s been magnified since because it’s the last time we won a series against them on their soil or ours.

Malcolm Reilly and Ralph Rimmer

“It was a fantastic tour and we had a great group of guys but I was lucky to stay on it as I did get into plenty of trouble.”

One of the sport’s most gifted but also hardened forwards, Reilly found himself on the wrong side of the law after one particular incident.

He recalled: “I finished up hiring the services of a guy in Macquarie Street in Sydney as it all went to High Court.

“But when somebody walks up behind you and can call you a ‘Pommie bast*rd’ I take offence. I didn’t think I was out of order.

Tony Fisher pic Matthew Merrick

“I knew I shouldn’t have reacted but, walking down this street, I’d stood the abuse long enough.

“When you have a profile over there – rugby league is the main sport, remember – it just got exaggerated out of proportion.

“I was acquitted in the end. There were some costs involved, probably around $2,000 which was a lot of money in those days.

“But all the players chipped in to help me pay it, showing just the sort of camaraderie we had.

“And it didn’t take anything away from the tour which was brilliant.”

Reilly, 72, conceded he did require the intervention of Lions coach Johnny Whiteley, the legendary former Hull and Great Britain World Cup-winning loose forward.

“Johnny saved me,” he said, about his fellow Hall of Famer who turns 90 in November.

“Jack Harding, the tour manager who was from Leigh, was all set to send me home. But Johnny, with a delegation of two or three players, had a meeting and said ‘Christ, you can’t send him home. They’re the qualities we need. We just need them on the field’.

“He was great; Johnny had a good football brain and played to the strengths of the team which is what coaches should do.

“You don’t go in there to invent stuff; look at the qualities, enhance them and let them do what they are good at. He did.”

Recalling the fiery final Test, when Castleford team-mate Dennis Hartley was a try-scorer along with Leeds duo John Atkinson (2) and Syd Hynes plus the brilliant Hull KR stand-off Roger Millward, Reilly said: “The penalty count was ridiculous.

“But we managed to win and it ended up being five tries to one.

“We had a great pack of forwards. The front-row was ruthless: Dennis Hartley, Tony Fisher and Cliff Watson.

“As we came down from Darwin to Sydney, I can recollect some of the opposition teams were rotating around and just wouldn’t go in the front-row!

“There was always head collisions and all sorts. I was at the back of the scrum and could hear everything, opponents saying ‘no, I’m not going in that with them!’”

The mercurial Millward replaced Castleford stand-off Alan Hardisty after the first Test and was a revelation for the tourists.

Reilly said: “Roger was fearless. And that was his main problem; that’s what caused his medical problems in the end because he wouldn’t shirk a tackle.

“He went in head first and sometimes his technique was a problem but he had such a big heart. His biggest attribute was his skill levels – his kicking game, awareness, support play – he had everything.

“But you’d have to say ‘For Christ’s sake, stay out of that!’

“Sometimes I’d swapped with him at six just to give their half-backs a bit of a work-out. He was such a brave kid.”

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