Mike Gibson was one of the greatest rugby players: 69 caps for Ireland, 12 Lions Tests. Sixty-nine caps was an awful lot in the amateur days, when it was the Five Nations, not Six, and there were few autumn internationals or summer tours.
He did everything well, because he practised well and brought a sharp intelligence to the game. Tom English and Peter Burns quote him in their splendid account of the ’71 Lions: “I’d play games on my own where I would just kick with my left foot or just kick with my right foot, and develop a strength in both.”
How many of today’s professionals do that? They have hours in which to practise; Gibson spent his days in a solicitor’s office. Then he would work on the simple but essential skill of giving and taking a pass, and then on what he calls “the thinking bit”, the ability to make decisions and anticipate what was going to happen.
Gibson was a perfect mid-field back. Barry John wasn’t perfect , but he was a genius. He didn’t do much tackling – indeed he said “I won’t tackle”. It was as if, according to Gibson, “he believed he was created for better things.”
You can’t have a non-tackling fly-half now, but you could then because teams didn’t target the No 10 channel, and a fly-half’s tackling was mostly in cover defence.
This was why Barry, like Jack Kyle before him, was able to finish a match with his shorts as white as at the kick-off. That meant also that they were too good to be tackled in possession. Both ghosted through defences.
Barry would sit in the changing-room while Carwyn James and captain John Dawes ran through the moves they expected to see in the game. And Barry would smile and say, sure, he understood all that, but “if you call a move and I can see a gap somewhere, I’m bloody well going for it.”
I guess Finn Russell thinks that way. He’s more like Barry John than any other fly-half playing today, always seeming to have more time than other players, though of course, unlike Barry, he has to do a lot of tackling, can’t leave it to the “gorillas”.
Willie John McBride remembers Carwyn James saying: “The All Blacks are a difficult team to beat because teams that play against them panic when they get the ball and kick it back to them – so there’s no point having it in the first place.
“And by doing that, they put even more pressure on themselves because they have to defend again.
“ We’re not going to kick the ball to them, we’re going to run at them.” This is still surely relevant today.
Carwyn hated the long kick down field which often landed straight in the full-back’s arms. If you were going to kick, he preferred the chip which gave you a chance of regaining the ball. This is good in theory, and often works in practice, though not always as those of us with memories of Mauro Bergamasco’s first-minute score at Murrayfield in 2007 will painfully attest.
But, executed properly, it can be beautiful, and Finn Russell, again, is as alert to the opportunity it offers as Barry John himself was. So too is Jonny Sexton, and it will be interesting to see if Lions coach Warren Gatland encourages Sexton to play what he sees in front of him, or instead urges him to get the ball down into the New Zealand half.
Of course Carwyn James & Co couldn’t have secured that series win without a big shift from their forwards, and the current thinking is that Gatland’s Lions may just have the edge up front, especially in the set scrum.
Fair enough, but it’s likely that even with a good deal less than half the possession the present, the All Blacks will run in three, four or five tries. To beat New Zealand today you have to set yourself a target of scoring at least 25 points – and even then might still find yourself on the losing side.
So I hope this summer’s Lions will play with some of the audacity and invention of Carwyn’s team almost half a century ago. If they do, then this too will be a series to delight us all. Let them remember Carwyn’s insistence that “it’s a thinking man’s game” in which you have to seize chances to play it off the cuff.