An encounter with a British & Irish Lion

Airports and travel have a knack of bringing people from different walks of life together.

For a flight from Manchester to Dubai this week this writer was celebrating the fact that he’d secured a seat at the emergency exit, offering extra legroom, for the eight hour journey.

It was only midway through the journey that the stranger sitting in the aisle seat had a story to tell and a link to South Africa, it made it even better that it was a sporting one.

For the man with the Yorkshire accent, who later identified himself as John Bentley, had once upon a time pulled a red jersey over his head and run out as a British & Irish Lion during their tour to South Africa in 1997.

“You’re from South Africa? Whereabouts?” he asked. When myself and my media colleague told him Johannesburg his response was typical of a man who hails from Leeds. “Ah, you two are tough bastards then,” he quipped.

It was only natural that the conversation would focus on rugby first and with the World Cup looming later this year, Bentley, had a reassurance for Springbok fans.

‘You boys will be alright. Nah, the South Africans always turn up for the World Cup,” he said.

“Another thing about South Africa’s rugby side is that they sometimes come across as arrogant to other teams. But I don’t think it’s that, I think it’s more of a case of self-belief. They know they can win.”

He also identified New Zealand and hosts, England, as the other lively contenders.

“It must be England. Everyone wants to beat them. You look at South Africa, their two biggest games in a year are probably against New Zealand and England. All the Northern Hemisphere sides want to beat England, the Aussies. It’s a game everyone wants to win,” he said.

Bentley, who appeared on the wing, is perhaps best remembered from that 1997 tour for an altercation with one of South African rugby’s bad boys James Small when the Lions played Western province at Newlands.

Small accused Bentley of eye-gouging and refused to shake his hand after the match which added to some of the hostility. But it was all that of the moment stuff as Bentley explained.

“You have to have that mindset. Once you cross that white line you have to flick that switch. But afterwards you should be able to put whatever happened on the field behind you and enjoy a drink together.”

“What I liked about touring South Africa was that we were so warmly welcomed. We were regarded as the British Lions, the kings of the jungle but we were still told “we’re going to beat you’. I liked that.”

We parted ways in the arrivals terminal at Dubai International Airport, Bentley had arrived at his destination – he had a speaking engagement in the following days – while we moved over to transfer for the next leg of the journey home.

“You look at  British & Irish Lions tour, there are so many games. All the games in between the Tests are there to soften you up so that the hosts can get the boot in when you meet them.”

“It’s massive. Huge. And it just keeps getting bigger and bigger. There’s such a great culture around that side.’

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