John Pullin obituary: An England captain of great honour and powerful actions

At the height of The Troubles in 1973, John Pullin, who died last week aged 79, led England to play in Dublin where Scotland and Wales had refused to play the previous year
John Pullin obituary: An England captain of great honour and powerful actions

England rugby captain John Pullin holding a sheep on his sheep farm in Gloucestershire, England, in June 1972. Photo by Daily Express/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Inside his heavily guarded room at the Shelbourne Hotel in Dublin one Saturday evening 48 years ago on Wednesday, John Pullin reminded himself that he had another losing speech to make.

For a man who shunned the limelight at the best of times and believed in actions speaking far louder than words, having to spout some platitudes over a failed mission felt almost as bad as losing the match. As captain of England, Pullin had not suffered from any lack of practice.

During a ten-year period from the second half of the supposedly swinging sixties when English rugby swung from one demoralising defeat to another, avoiding the wooden spoon seemed almost a cause for celebration. He would have known the drill off by heart but circumstance decreed that this speech would have to be different.

England, the old enemy with infinitely more reason to be fearful, had ventured forth in that winter of 1973 where Scotland and Wales had feared to tread the previous year. 

Security risks at the height of The Troubles were sufficient excuse for the Celts to stay at home.

Pullin swore to his dying day that doing likewise was never an option. There was a fixture to be honoured and he would honour it even it meant having to do what he dreaded, apologising for failing to put up more of a show. So there he was, changing into his glad rags for the black-tie dinner, ‘scribbling down a few words’. 

Twelve of them have long since become part of Anglo-Irish sporting culture:

We may not be much good but at least we turn up." 

The standing ovation staggered him. "It was overwhelming and I’m not an emotional type of bloke, certainly not openly," he told me years later. "I didn’t think it was that good a quote. It just seemed the obvious thing to say, didn’t it?

"I didn’t feel in any danger as a sportsman. Deep down, I never thought we would be a target as a sporting team. In the hotel, there was a policeman outside every door and two or three at the bottom of the staircase. You couldn’t move for them.

"The more you saw of the security, the more you thought: ‘Perhaps there is something going on.’ I suppose the only time you thought about it was when they played the national anthem and you were stood round dead still for a long time. You thought to yourself: ‘Not a good idea, this.’ There were never any threats, at least not that we knew."

Pullin deserves to be remembered first and foremost as a hooker great enough in the mid-seventies to be voted by a panel of global experts as the best in the world. That he could reach such a pinnacle not because of England but in spite of them given their consistent poverty speaks volumes of a hooker forever remembered by his fellow Lion Willie John McBride as ‘a great player and a great rugby man’. 

Pullin’s Test career spanned eleven seasons of the Five Nations from 1966. England finished bottom seven times, second-from-bottom once, fourth once, and third twice. That’s how poor they were and yet Pullin somehow inspired them to win in Johannesburg and Auckland, something still beyond the reach of Ireland, Scotland, and Wales.

His place in the Pantheon had long been assured by a series of historic firsts, not that he ever wasted much time talking about them, least of all if it interfered with his cattle farm on the shores of the Severn across the border from his friends in Wales.

He was the only Englishman to play in all four Tests when the Lions won the 1971 series in New Zealand for the first and only time. His were the only non-Welsh pair of hands engineering the ‘Try of the Century’ as finished off by Gareth Edwards for the Barbarians against the All Blacks in January 1973.

He was the first captain to lead England to victories over the All Blacks, Springboks, and Wallabies, a feat which would remain unequalled until Martin Johnson matched it some three decades later. Even then, Pullin’s still reigned supreme and not because all three victories came within a period of 18 months but because they were achieved against all the odds.

The first, at Ellis Park, Johannesburg on June 3, 1972, proved to be his finest hour. The bald facts of England’s 18-9 win, based on five Sam Doble goals and Alan Morley scoring the game’s only try, says nothing of what really happened.

In a pre-substitute age when uncontested scrums were unheard of, a huge gash on Stack Stevens’ forehead left the tourists with a hole on one side of their scrum left by the bleeding Cornishman. The other prop, Mike Burton, tells what happened next.

"We’re doing well, holding our own in a very hard physical battle and then we lose Stack," he said today. 

"The cut was so deep that you could see the bone in his head. It was horrible.

"Pullin looked at me and nodded so I switched from tighthead to the other side. John Watkins, making his debut in the back row, volunteered to step forward on the tighthead. That meant I was playing loosehead with no flanker behind me.

"So there we were: six thousand miles from home, six thousand metres above sea-level with a seven-man pack, half an hour to go, and 100,000 at Ellis Park baying for more blood. We were up against a ruthless Springbok pack who treated us like dog manure on their shoes and, on top of all that, we had to cope with a South African referee.

"At the first scrum, Pullin looked at me again and nodded. He didn’t say a word but we both knew what he meant. Something had to be done because we were up against monsters. Let’s say we dealt with it in the way Gloucester props knew how.

"In all the mayhem which ensured, Pullin made sure we never lost a single scrum and there’d be about 30 a match in those days. That gives some idea of the bloke he was. A great player and a great captain."

He was also never afraid to speak his mind. He is the only England captain to go on the record saying he didn’t like playing at Twickenham but loved doing so in Cardiff.

"I never enjoyed Twickenham," he told me. "I’d much sooner play Wales in Cardiff even though we usually got a good hiding there. Ninety per cent of the people at Twickenham were there because it was Twickenham. They weren’t really there to watch the rugby whereas in Wales it was ninety per cent the other way.

"If you ever took one against the head at Cardiff Arms Park, a big noise would go up from the crowd because they understood and appreciated what was happening. If you took one against the head at Twickenham, nobody would know. They wouldn’t have had a clue what had happened." 

- John Pullin, born November 1, 1941, died last Thursday, February 5, 2021, aged 79. He is survived by his wife, Brenda, son Jonathan and daughter Mandy.

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