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Wednesday, 11 September, 2002, 05:28 GMT 06:28 UK
Delme: The leaping Lion
Delme Thomas in a typical pose for Wales
Delme Thomas in a typical pose for Wales

In the first of BBC Sport Online's new weekly rugby union series, we chart the rise of one of Welsh rugby's forgotten heroes, three times Lions tourist Delme Thomas.


Making your international debut against New Zealand will forever remain one of rugby's more daunting introductions.

To make it for the Lions on a cold winter's day against an All Blacks side containing the legendary Meads brothers is almost beyond the call of duty.

But so it was for an uncapped 23-year-old called Delme Thomas in 1966, when he took the field during the second Test in Wellington.

The Lions, already 1-0 down after a 20-3 defeat in the opening game, lost 16-12 - but only after the young second-row was brought down short of the line after a heart-pounding 50-metre run.

Thomas is now widely regarded as one of the greatest locks to have ever played the game.

Captain of the Llanelli side who so famously defeated the All Blacks in 1972, Thomas went on to tour twice more with the Lions - to South Africa in 1968 and New Zealand in 1971.

Not at all bad for someone who confesses to arriving late at the sport.

"I played soccer until I was 12," he told BBC Sport Online. "In Bancyfelin, the village where I lived, they played soccer until I went to senior school. It was only then I turned to rugby."

Thomas remembers being overawed by his experience in 1966, a tour that lasted three days short of five months and incorporated 35 matches.

"I hadn't played for Wales before that so it was my first experience of international rugby and to play against the mighty All Blacks was a great achievement for me," he said.

"If you weren't in the international set up you didn't know who was who. I was bundled into the deep end not knowing most of the Welsh side let alone the English, Scottish and Irish boys."

To combat any nerves the young Thomas might have had, the management opted to room him with a certain Willie John McBride.

"I remember meeting Willie John in Eastbourne before we left. As you can imagine I was lost not knowing anyone and he helped me a great deal and I haven't forgotten it."

The tour has since been described as one 'doomed from the start'.


I've nothing against Mike Campbell-Lamerton, but looking back he was the wrong choice as captain
It was not just over-long, it included a murderous itinerary, a fractured management, a controversial captain unable to command a Test place and failures in selection and tactical direction.

The result was that the Lions were whitewashed for the first time in their history 4-0.

"I didn't know much about the captain Mike Campbell-Lamerton before the tour and I remember reading in the papers that the Welsh number eight of the time, Alun Pask, hadn't been given the captaincy. That was a shock.

"I've nothing against Mike. I got on well with him. But looking back he was the wrong choice - but who was I to say? "

Thomas's incredible form saw him knock his captain out of the Test side.

Campbell-Lamerton eventually fought his way back, but such was the confidence in Thomas he was moved up to tight-head prop.

Thomas roomed with Willie John who became a great friend
Thomas roomed with Willie John who became a great friend
It was a position he did not relish, but after making his belated Welsh debut, he found himself back in the front row on the 1968 Lions tour to South Africa.

"In '68 I again went as a second row but played two Tests in the front row. It was there I met a 20-stone prop called Mof Myburgh. I thought he was going to kill me!

"He was such a big man but the pace of the game got to him more than to me that's for sure."

Again the Lions lost out, 3-0 with one Test drawn. But better times were to follow for the man from Bancyfelin.

In 1971 Thomas was again chosen to tour with the Lions and he is in no doubt that the tables of world rugby had turned.

"I'm fortunate because I can compare different tours and that side in '71 was a complete side," he said.


Three players were flown home - it was such a violent game and the dirtiest I ever played in
"We had the cream of British rugby on show. We were the world beaters and we had the right management structure.

"We set the standard in the provincial games so when we played Canterbury who were one of the best I'm sure they thought they'd soften us up.

"And we did lose three players in that game, two props and our number eight Mike Hipwell.

"It was such a violent game and the dirtiest I was ever involved in."

Thomas played in the first two Tests before losing his place to his great friend Gordon Brown.

"Gordon, myself and Willie John were very close. So when I lost my place to Gordon I gave him my full support and we got on very well together," he admitted.

The Lions took the first game 9-3, before losing the second 22-12.

Gareth Edwards was one of a number of backline 'stars'
Gareth Edwards was one of a number of backline 'stars'
In the third they played their best rugby of the tour, blitzing the All Blacks in a 13-3 victory before drawing the fourth 14-14.

For Thomas, the foundations of success were laid down even before they reached the shores of New Zealand - in the selection of his club colleague Carwyn James as coach.

"People had so much respect for Carwyn and it came out on the field," he said.

"He was 20 or 30 years ahead of his time and it showed. Even New Zealanders thought the world of him.

"I know New Zealand were going through a rebuilding process but having said that we had a world class backline, in Gareth Edwards, Barry John, David Duckham, JPR Williams and Gerald Davies.

"They all had so much skill. Looking back, it was almost inevitable that we'd come away from that tour with a victory."

PART TWO: Thomas on captaining Llanelli to victory over the All Blacks in 1972 and how professionlism has destroyed the game in Wales.


Rugby heroes
Links to more Celtic stories are at the foot of the page.


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