Return of the British Lions evokes fond memories for unsung hero Paul Dixon

Paul Dixon (left) and Denis Betts - pictured at Wembley after Great Britain's 1990 first Test win against Australia. ''(Picture: Steve Riding)
Paul Dixon (left) and Denis Betts - pictured at Wembley after Great Britain's 1990 first Test win against Australia. ''(Picture: Steve Riding)
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ONE of the enduring features of a Great Britain tour are, as Paul Dixon attests, the way in which careers can take wonderful, unexpected twists in an instant.

With news this week that the Lions are thankfully returning for the first time since 2007, plenty of current players will earn the chance to represent them again in New Zealand and Papua New Guinea this autumn.

Huddersfield-born farmer Dixon did just that in 1990 and recalls it as the trip of a lifetime.

The strong-running second-row was playing for Leeds at the time but had won the league championship with Halifax in 1986 and then followed up with a famous Challenge Cup victory the following year. Dixon faced Australia on the 1988 tour but missed the classic third Test win for Malcolm Reilly’s side due to a broken thumb.

Still, his time would belatedly come again two years later.

“When I set off (in ’90) I probably wasn’t even a first choice second-row,” he told The Yorkshire Post.

One thing with Malcolm was he was fair; if you perform on the field, you played. But if Malcolm had not had that warm-up game first, I might never have got near.

Paul Dixon

“In fact, I know I wasn’t; I was only called up late because Andy Platt was injured. But there was a midweek game (in Papua) as the first match and I set my stall out to get myself a Test jersey. I did. I worked hard and I earned it.

“One thing with Malcolm was he was fair; if you perform on the field, you played. But if Malcolm had not had that warm-up game first, I might never have got near.

“Not only that, I went on to play all five Tests and that led into the Ashes series when we got home when we beat Australia at Wembley. I played all those three so that’s eight Tests – more than half my 15 caps – I might never have got! I’m sure something similar could happen to whoever gets that sort of chance this year, too. It’s great.”

Dixon, 56, is delighted to see the Lions reformed after 11 years of four nations. He added: “I think it’s the highlight of anyone’s career to become a British Lion.

“It was for me; touring with the Lions is a massive honour. I don’t think it should ever have been lost to start with.

“I remember in ’90 (GB manager) David Howes rang and said ‘Dicko, I’ve an invitation for you to come on the Lions tour.’

“I told him I needed time to think about it. He asked how long. I told him I’m coming!

“There was no way I wasn’t going. People still say to my wife Sue ‘Why did you let him go?’

“But there was never any question. Rugby was the most important thing in my life at that point. It was my career and everything else was put on the back-burner and she knew that.

“My dad and grandad knew the family farm came second, too. But I was lucky to play club rugby twice in Australia and she packed her job in to come with me.”

Dixon started at prop in the shock first Test loss to PNG but switched to second-row alongside Denis Betts as they won the second encounter in Port Moresby.

They remained together for first Test win over the Kiwis in Palmerston North and again as they clinched the series in Auckland before Dixon was dropped to the bench, for the third Test loss in Christchurch.

Leeds team-mate Roy Powell replaced him.

Dixon recalled: “Strangely, I don’t remember much about New Zealand. I remember plenty about PNG. That was an eye-opener. I ran the water the game when there was tear gas.

“Mike Gregory was captain. What a great player and bloke he was. One of the best. It’s sad to think him and Roy, who I formed a back-three with plenty of times, are no longer with us. But it was a really good group; we all worked hard and played hard.”