John Dawes

When people talk of the ‘Welsh way’ of playing rugby, a key architect of it, a science teacher from the valleys, rarely gets mentioned. But when John Dawes received a letter from the Welsh Rugby Union saying his London-based team needed to appoint a coach, he stepped up, changing the face of a club and country forever.

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The two meetings with John Dawes and Geoff Evans couldn’t be more different. The first, at London Welsh, is with a room full of several hundred supporters that know exactly who they are. Whether they were alive at the time of their rugby exploits or not, they’ve seen them in countless reruns or heard their stories being played out in a thousand animated clubhouse tales.

Geoff Evans, a lock with seven Wales caps to his name, is one of the club’s seven players that were part of the famous 1971 British & Irish Lions victory in New Zealand. The man sat next to him, John Dawes, also one of the seven, is their greatest-ever clubman [John Taylor, Gerald Davies, Mervyn Davies, JPR Williams and Mike Roberts make up the pride]. 

As captain and coach, Dawes developed a style of rugby that took London Welsh to the top of European club rugby and then shared it with his nation, coaching Wales through the most golden of eras, four Five Nations Championships in five years, including two Grand Slams and a Triple Crown.

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His name fills honours boards throughout London Welsh, there are rooms named after him, probably trophies too, and cabinets are filled with artefacts that fuel hundreds of anecdotes from a life well played and very well coached.

When speeches mention Dawes, the room stands to attention and nobody holds back on the applause. It’s well deserved, likewise for Evans too, a player and national team manager, who only stepped down from official WRU duties in the late-90s.

The second meeting with the pair is weeks later and a two-and-a-half-hour drive down the M4 to a pub in Llandaff. This small corner of Cardiff punches far above its weight, adorned with its own 12th-century cathedral, it is surely one of the world’s only ‘cities within a city’. It has its own bishop too, the Bishop of Llandaff, not to mention the ruins of a palace once owned by one of  his predecessors, which must be a constant reminder for him of what could have been.

Down the road from all of this Catholic splendour, in a perfectly acceptable Brains-owned pub, sit two living legends of rugby, John Dawes and Geoff Evans, sipping red wine and beer respectively. It’s only when we’re away from all the choirs and crowds of their former club, that we get to talk about their lives in and out of rugby. 

And there’s a lot to discuss. Between them, they’ve got a 154 years of it to discuss, with Geoff currently responsible for 76 and John 78.

“Nothing really happened until secondary school,” says Geoff of his rugby education. “We’d play some form of football or rugby in the streets but there was nothing structured for kids. When you did get to secondary school though it was rugby, rugby and rugby – forget all the other sports, they didn’t exist.

“Yeah only rugby,” agrees John.“I was at a grammar school and the main sport was rugby and then cricket in the summer, I didn’t play cricket but I did do athletics.” He plays down his achievements in athletics, but is said to have done the 100 yards in 10.2 seconds and 440 in 51.6 seconds.

The first chance of honours came with Welsh schoolboys, but remarkably neither said they made it.

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“I didn’t get anywhere near any of that,” admits Geoff. “I got to the final trial,” says John, “Mind you there were about 25 trials, but I still didn’t get selected.”

It was at university where the pair made their first forays into more senior rugby. Geoff had attended the proud rugby college of Llandovery, but had only manage a year or two in the first team. When he went to university things eventually started to take shape, just as Geoff did. “I studied biochemistry and went to Bangor University,” he explains. “I was about the same height as I am now – well I was about half an inch taller because we all shrink when we get older – so I was 6ft 4in, but I was only about twelve stone.

“Anyway, within about 15 months of university I was about 14 stone and I hadn’t done anything – maybe a little bit of training, but it was natural development, the body had got bigger and a couple of beers hadn’t slowed the process down.”

By the time Geoff’s third year rolled around, he’d done enough ‘bulking up’ to play some serious rugby. “I became captain and we won the universities of Wales championships which was a big thing because rugby in North Wales was always second to soccer – I don’t know if it was the first time the university had won it, but it was the first time in a bloody long time. And then I got picked for various university select outfits, British Universities and all that – all of a sudden people thought, ‘perhaps this guy could play a bit’.”

John, a fleet-footed centre, had gone to Aberystwyth to study chemistry, while also turning out for his village side of Newbridge. He’d followed his degree with a PGCE at Loughborough University, yet despite its rugby pedigree, never played for them. Here, he met his wife Janette. “We got married, moved to London and I joined London Welsh without playing for any other club,” says John. “I was persuaded by some of the London Welsh officials that because I was a valley boy, that when you come to London, you had play for London Welsh, that’s it.”

Soon after joining London Welsh, Dawes was capped by Wales in 1964, scoring on his debut in a 15-6 win over Ireland at Lansdowne Road. He became captain a year later, and that was when Geoff joined. “It was an ideal time for a young player to join because he was captain, and coach, and chief cook and bottle washer,” recalls Geoff. “And the type of rugby that London Welsh was playing was way ahead of anything that most of the other clubs were doing, in either England or Wales. 

“The one club we always had quite a rivalry with was Llanelli, they had a similar sort of philosophy in terms of the way the game should be played. 

“It was only then, in that team, I thought I might be able to play international rugby,” continues Geoff. “I thought, well, if I keep on playing in this team, and this team does well, as we were beginning to do in 1966, then other people might notice me.”

Geoff is the greatest of storytellers, self-effacing but remembers everything.

“It didn’t happen for me overnight, but it did for some, like John Taylor [another of the ‘71 Lions] who arrived at same time. He’d played for Loughborough, hadn’t been a star, but he got into the London Welsh team and, by January of the following year, he was playing for Wales. 

“Nothing like that happened to me,” he continues. “When I first played for London Welsh I got dropped a few times. 

“I don’t blame John though,” he says, nodding to his former captain, “he had only one vote and he always voted for me, or least that’s what he told me!” 

As Geoff talks, John listens keenly, but underplays his own role in almost everything, which is why we’re lucky to have his 6ft 4in friend with us. “I was in a good team, I was only hanging on in there, but it was a bloody good team and I wanted more of it. 

“It was a great environment to play in if you were of the mind to play rugby as it should be played and it was his philosophy to do that – to move the ball and use the ball. It was also the idea of becoming good at doing the basics. Do the basics well and everything else will follow.”

As London Welsh began to dominate club rugby, Evans finally got his cap – albeit four years after John Taylor – starting against South Africa in a 6-6 draw at Cardiff Arms Park in 1970. “We should’ve won,” he says, “but Edwards missed a kick – he was captain on that day too!”

Snippets of different games pepper our chat with Geoff and John, as they recall curiosities and talking points from games at levels, club, county and country. “We played Ireland in Ireland,” begins Geoff, referencing a 1970 14-0 defeat. “And one of the reasons we lost is that we played a chap called Keith Almond on the wing. He was very good at sidestepping, but only off the right foot – and we played him on the left.

“Not only that, he was usually a centre and so didn’t know how to throw the ball into the lineout – which was the job of the wing in those days – and so we never won any lineouts and Keith and I bore the brunt of it, we both got dropped after that. We laugh about it now, but it wasn’t funny at the time.”

Emphasising how far ahead John was with his philosophy at club level, was the lack of any kind of formal coaching structure on the international team. “There was a sort of coaching set-up but it was in the very early stages,” says Geoff. “Ray Williams who was the coaching organiser was a very go ahead sort of guy and tried to develop coaching in Wales and was pretty successful. 

“But at that time, for the coaching sessions for internationals we used to get together on the Thursday for a squad session on Aberavon beach in Port Talbot. We had a scrummaging session on the beach and then an unopposed game of rugby for 15 minutes, and that was it.”

On the subject of coaching, John chips in. “There were two types of rugby then, Clive Rowlands type of rugby and our type of rugby,” he says. Bearing in mind Rowlands was the Welsh coach who infamously instructed his side to kick at every opportunity, resulting in an 111 lineouts, it’s easy to guess what John is getting at.  

“I think the likes of Gareth Edwards and Barry John were the magical people who helped build a reputation for Wales by playing good rugby football. It was their outstanding football ability that allowed it to develop.  

“We were lucky at Welsh too that we were hanging on to a player like Gerald Davies – he went to Cambridge and then came to London Welsh.”

“You won’t be surprised here, he undersells himself,” cuts in Geoff, as John puts all the credit on to his players. “When I joined there may have been a lot of good people selected, but there were two key people co-ordinating the way in which we played the game. 

“He,” says Geoff, pointing to his friend again,  “was one as captain and coach.”

John had got the dual role courtesy of the Welsh Rugby Union. “The union wrote to all the clubs – and London Welsh was considered a Welsh club – to say they had to appoint a coach and I think because I was a school teacher I got the job.”

“Again,” cuts in Geoff once more. “He’s underselling himself. He was coach and captain, both on and off the field.”

Dawes admits he was at least prepared for the role. “I was Loughborough trained,” he acknowledges. “I had learnt the coaching techniques and one of the coaches there was Johnny Robins, who was the first-ever coach of the Lions in 1966.”

A second major factor in the London Welsh rise was ‘fitness coach’ Roger Mickelson. “He was a very big influence because he took it upon himself to develop the physical fitness of the side. 

“We became a lot fitter than a lot of the clubs we played against, he was very instrumental in that. His approach was very old school – his favourite warm-up was shoulder rolling. He’d start off with 20 shoulder rolls, then another 30, then 40, then 50. Then you’d run around the field and then do ten 40-metre sprints. No stops, none of this recovery business, he’d say, ‘if you want to be sick, that’s fine. I don’t mind if you want to be fucking sick, but don’t stop running’. 

“That always stuck with me, that sort of balance between the way in which John was very low key in terms of shouting ability and Roger was the other end of the spectrum.”

“He was also captain of Cambridge,” adds John, “he led in the Varsity Match.”

“He was nobody’s fool,” responds Geoff. “He was definitely all about how ‘we will be fitter than those bastards’ – considering he was a Cambridge Blue his language was a joy to behold!”

“Articulate,” confirms John.

Such was the rate of Wales internationals coming out of London Welsh, it was almost a given. “In our period for London Welsh, people thought ‘well, if you play for London Welsh, then you get a cap’,” says John.

“That’s what they’d think,” he reiterates. “We didn’t think that but they did, and as a result we had a good status, not only in the type of players we attracted but also the games. We attracted a lot of medics, some good ones too, obviously JPR the most famous, but there were other quality players.”

It wasn’t just a star-studded backline that made London Welsh successful. “One of my favourite games,” says Geoff, “was after we’d become unofficial champions of England and Wales in 71 and Beziers were that year’s French champions. 

“Somebody had set a game up between Beziers and London Welsh in Paris on a Sunday. I can’t remember when, but let’s say it was March and on the Saturday we played Neath. 

“At that time they were the very opposite of us in terms of philosophy, they’d batter, batter, batter. It didn’t matter how good you were, they’d win. 

“But on this Saturday we played down in Neath and we won – it wasn’t grand, but as forwards we’d set down a mark that gone were the days when you could play London Welsh and fuck us about, we ain’t for trampling anymore.

“It was our arrival in Wales,” agrees John. “Up to then they thought we were good for a Welsh side in London – they never believed we earned the reputation that the press had given us.”

“Pleased was an understatement,” says Geoff. “But we were playing Beziers the following day in Paris, so we travelled on the Saturday to Paddington, stayed in some less than impressive hotel in Sussex Gardens, then got up at 6am for a flight to Paris and arrived by lunchtime. They’d put on a big lavish lunch for us, to which none of the Beziers were invited – but we weren’t quite so naïve as to indulge too much, we knew their game.

“In the very first scrum just as it goes down, I could see this enormous fist come through and bang our hooker Tony Baker right in the face. He had the heart of a lion Tony, and he just took it. And it happened all the way through the game.

“But, just as with Neath, we weren’t taking a backstep for anyone, we won that game too.

“We played a style of rugby that inspired people, and they all thought, ‘Christ that team can play’.”

Of all the players the two played with, one stands out. “In this era, we had loads of very, very good players,” says Geoff, “but if I’m asked to name the No.1 player that contributed most to London Welsh and Wales for over four or five years, then undoubtedly it was Mervyn Davies. He is by a street the most effective rugby player that I played with, for or against. There were lots of flashier players, more clever and quicker players, but in terms of his contribution to the whole, it was such that I’d pick Merve any day of the week over any modern No.8. 

“He’s quite accurate,” John says of his former team-mate’s choice. “When you consider the players with whom we played, all those Welsh internationals and all outstanding for Wales and yet Swerve was the star in all of that, quite modestly, never full of himself. We were lucky, not only did we have all those stars, but we also had Mervyn Davies.”

The influence of London Welsh didn’t only rub off on Wales, but on the British & Irish Lions too. “I think it was the early 70s when we started to impact on Wales,” reckons John. “In 71 we must have had some impact as we had seven guys on the Lions tour from the same club.”

Although both in full-time work when the Lions tour came around, getting time off wasn’t a problem. “Such was the prestige, you only had to knock on the boss’s door and the answer was always ‘certainly my boy, got any tickets’,” explains John.

Geoff made it to New Zealand, but not right away. “I hadn’t played for Wales that Five Nations because I’d been injured, but my flat-mate Mike Roberts had,” he says. “I went to work on the Monday before the post arrived, knowing the selection had taken place over the weekend.

“About mid-day I rang the flat because I knew Robbo would still be there. ‘Have you got anything from the Lions? ‘Yeah,’ he said, ‘I’m in’. I said, ‘is there another letter there?’ ‘Yeah,’ he said. ‘Well open it then’. I was on the standby list.”

When the Lions tour got underway, aside from a defeat en route to New Zealand in Queensland, the tourists dominated. “The Lions were winning everything, but I had to keep training just in case,” says Geoff. “Then I got a phone call from the hierarchy saying, ‘we need to know that you are fit to play – if you are fit to play, then you are selected’.”

A hastily arranged fitness test took place on Brockwell Park, near Geoff’s home in Tulse Hill. He passed and joined the most famous Lions tour of all times with six of his club-mates. 

The 26-game was successful beyond every Lion’s wildest dream. 

Aside from that Queensland defeat, the Lions won every non-Test game in Australia and New Zealand, losing only two games in total and drawing one. “It was the fullness of the tour,” says John, “everyone was part of it, there were no superstars, that was the first reason it worked so well. 

“The second was the weather. We didn’t play in the rain and that made a big difference to us because our secret strength was in the backs and they had to play in fine weather. They didn’t expect that. 

“Carwyn James [the coach] had a lot to do with it,” continues John. “His philosophy, his belief in the game and how we should we play. But also how we treated people. It was perfect. You wouldn’t have changed it. We weren’t given any chance were we? But we were confident.”

“I think we were quite lucky that we had a few people who’d been to New Zealand before on a Lions tour, like Willie John [McBride],” says Geoff. “He knew in his heart that while everyone else thought the New Zealand pack would take us to the cleaners, he was foremost in thinking, ‘it doesn’t have to be like that, we can do these guys’.”

“Carwyn allowed that to happen,” says John, “for Willie to be the boss – and it worked.”

The Lions secured the series in the third Test, winning 13-3, adding to their 9-3 win in the first Test. It was one individual performance that Geoff remembers most. “One thing that stood out for me was the way in which Barry John absolutely mesmerised one of the most famous All Blacks of time, Fergie McCormick – he kicked him to death, he had him going this way, that way, above his head, he sent him everywhere. And by the end of that game, it was the end of Fergie McCormick and he’d been one of the very top men in New Zealand rugby.” 

For John, the tour meant something beyond the series. “It brought a belief back to the UK that we could win in New Zealand,” he says. 

Geoff’s playing career ended at 32, while John played until he was 34, taking over the reigns of the Welsh national side in 1974, a post he held until 1979. 

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As always, it’s Geoff who provides the best summary of John’s achievements as coach.

“Watching the game as an ex-player, trying to analyse how Wales play the game, it was just the way he thought London Welsh should play,” he says of his friend took the London Welsh style to the national side. “But equally there were times when, as with London Welsh, the national side had to park its philosophy and deal with things in a different way.

“People of a certain vintage are always going to compare the current Welsh team with the side of the 70s,” continues Geoff. “Eddie Jones said ‘this is the best Welsh team since whenever’ and I think [Gareth] Edwards said, ‘I’m not sure about that, but I am bias’. 

“Well, it’s virtually impossible to compare teams from one era to another, but I think that this team is a pretty good one, but I don’t think it compares with the Wales team of the mid to late 70s. That may be because the other teams weren’t as good. I mean in those days, England were always a win by 20 or whatever.” 

Geoff went on to become a selector for Wales, managed them in the Rugby World Cup in 1995  – “not a high spot,” he admits – and was also the Welsh representative on the then IRB for five years, just as the game went professional. “I think they handed it as best they could,” he says. “It wasn’t perfect, but if they’d not made it professional there would have been a breakaway.”

As John polishes off the final glass of red from the bottle we talk about the greatest coaches. “His stint in the mid-70s will stand up in good stead to any coach in the world,” says Geoff, nodding to his friend again.

And the thing John enjoyed most? The big club games with Wales? The Lions tours? The Grand Slams? “Being part of it,” he says, simply, “and just enjoying it.” 

Do you miss it? “I miss the camaraderie,” says John. “I don’t miss the hands on.”

“I had a text from my daughter yesterday afternoon saying, ‘do you recognise this photograph?’” says Geoff, taking us down another side road of memory lane, probably the last one of the day, given all our glasses are empty. “It was her son Joey standing next to a picture in the London Welsh clubhouse. Her kids do mini rugby at Teddington, so they’d been playing at the Old Deer Park. 

“Anyway, she messaged me saying, ‘Joey scored four tries in this match this morning’, to which I replied, ‘Well done Joey, that’s more than I scored in my entire career’.”  

Words by: Alex Mead

Pictures by: Nick Dawe