Bentley proves his true worth

Ten years have flown by since John Bentley made himself a rugby folk hero in the British and Irish Lions' triumph in South Africa. Bill Bridge remembers.

IT might be hard to imagine, but there have been worse summers than this. There was one in particular, 1997, when the family holiday was spent in Connemara, every day was cold and wet, and we wore sweaters and socks to bed, but the wonderful memories burn still, thanks to rugby.

In Claddaghduff, not far from the bog where John Alcock and Arthur Brown crashed to earth after their historic flight over the Atlantic in 1919, there is not much to do when the sun is shining; when freezing rain batters down day in, day out the star attraction is the bar owned by Mr Sweeney, who also runs the filling station, the post office, the village shop, just about everything bar the church (and you wouldn't bet on that).

And that saved the holiday. For while the rain poured the British Lions were winning a Test series in South Africa and, in company with the rest of the village – most of whom started out as Gaelic football diehards but were soon converted – we relished every pass, kick and tackle of the two Saturdays in which history was made.

That was the tour in which one of Yorkshire rugby's favourite sons showed the world an exceptional talent.

John Bentley first emerged into the rugby spotlight playing for Cleckheaton colts. Rapid promotion followed with Alan Roche, the Welshman who coached a generation of Yorkshire colts, smoothing off rough edges and helping produce a player who would gain international honours, first as a colt and eventually, in 1988, as a full England player.

Bentley also represented Yorkshire, Otley and Sale before turning professional with Leeds, playing later for Balmain and Halifax Blue Sox then, when union took the quantum leap forward and professionalism dawned, he returned to the 15-a-side code with Rotherham and Newcastle Falcons.

He played for England and Great Britain in rugby league, but the greatest challenge of his career came when he was named in the British Lions squad for the 1997 tour of South Africa. "John Who?" was the reaction of those with short – or selective – memories.

Such was the acceptance by the tour selectors of the need to pick the best men available for what promised to be a demanding tour against the world champions that Bentley was joined in the squad by three other players who had moved to rugby league: Welshmen Scott Gibbs, Alan Tait and Allan Bateman. The thinking was spot on.

But as he watched the first Test in Cape Town, Bentley was not in the best of moods. He had been named as a replacement for the match, Tait, his club-mate at Newcastle, being preferred on the wing although he was a centre by trade.

"The hangover from not being selected was a terrible disappointment," he remembers. "You feel as though you have had a leg taken away from you or something, but you can never, never show that.

"Because of the spirit we had within the squad everybody must remain focused."

The tourists won the Test 25-16, full-back Neil Jenkins kicking five penalties, scrum-half Matt Dawson scoring a brilliantly audacious try following a dummy and Tait adding the gloss with a last-minute touchdown.

"We had won the first Test so everyone was celebrating and yet, because I hadn't played, I was still not sure whether to have a drink. It ended up being a fantastic night but I was there for the wrong reasons," recalls Bentley.

He was determined to make an impact in the next match – against Orange Free State – and underline his claims for the second Test the following Saturday.

He achieved that in style, scoring a hat-trick of tries in what tour manager Fran Cotton described as "one of the all-time great Lions performances".

Bentley himself says: "I was on the end of three tries but it was the forwards who put in the hard work."

The following day Welsh winger Ieuan Evans tore his groin in training and the door was opened for Bentley to play a Test for the Lions. He charged through it, bringing roars of approval from the 10,000 British and Irish fans in Durban when he flattened his opposite number Pierre Roussow with an unforgettable thundering tackle.

The sides were locked together at 15-15 with just five minutes remaining when Gregor Townsend almost reached the Springbok line, the ball went from Dawson to Jeremy Guscott in Townsend's fly-half spot and the centre calmly dropped the goal which won the series.

"After that we played on for what seemed an eternity," says Bentley. "I've watched it many times since and every time I see it I think they are going to score.

"Obviously they don't, but we were under tremendous pressure."

The party started immediately and went long into the Natal night but the rest was anti-climax.

The Lions won their final midweek game but, despite playing some of the best rugby of the whole tour, were beaten 33-16 in the final Test.

Bentley ended the tour as joint highest try-scorer with seven, along with fellow-Yorkshire wing Tony Underwood, and made more starts than any other player – eight.

Looking back on the tour from his office at Headingley Carnegie, where today he works for Leeds Rugby, Bentley highlights two factors which helped make the tour such a success.

"It was the advent of professional rugby union and those of us on the tour who had played league tried to set standards; show what professionalism meant, both on and off the field, and particularly in our approach to training. It was not just about money," he says.

"Martin Johnson, who would later lead England to the Rugby World Cup, always says that tour in 1997 was the best he ever went on.

"The other thing was that a few previous tours – and some since – suffered because the squad split into factions, usually the English or the southerners, and the rest.

"We never had that problem, thanks to the management of Fran Cotton and Ian McGeechan, who had both toured as Lions, and the attitude of all the lads."

The 1997 Lions were paid 10,000 each to tour with a bonus of 7,500-a-man for winning the series.

For the memories they gave us – and them – that was money well spent.