John O’Shea, Welsh rugby prop who became the first Lion to be sent off for foul play – obituary

John O'Shea
John O'Shea - Shutterstock

John O’Shea, who has died aged 83, was a burly Cardiff, Wales and Lions prop who entered the annals of rugby history as the first Lion to be sent off for foul play.

O’Shea, known, perhaps inevitably, as “Two-Ton-Tessie O’Shea” (after the amply-proportioned Welsh entertainer), was capped five times for Wales in 1967-68 and was selected for the 1968 Lions tour to South Africa.

The tour was controversial not just because the rest of the sporting world was distancing itself from the apartheid regime, but because of the alleged bad behaviour of the tourists.
The Lions were accused of being the “worst-behaved team ever to tour South Africa” by the Johannesburg Sunday Times, which charged players with a catalogue of crimes including “severe drinking bouts, riotous behaviour at hotels and nightclubs... broken hotel doors, broken glasses by the dozen, unpaid liquor debts and girls in tears because of outright rudeness.”

The British rugby writer JBG Thomas observed in their defence that at least, unlike one lot of predecessors, they had “never set fire to a railway carriage”, and it seems that much of the problem stemmed from the circumstances surrounding O’Shea’s sending-off: the London Sunday Times correspondent, Vivian Jenkins, described the tour after the incident as “becoming more like war every day”.

The match in question, against Eastern Transvaal, took place on June 29 at Springs, east of Johannesburg, and as O’Shea recalled, the portents were not good: “A year earlier on the same ground, France had played Eastern Transvaal in a brutal match that required the referee to blow early to avoid further bloodshed.”

From the start things threatened to turn ugly, prompting the referee Bert Woolley to warn: “Next man who throws a punch is off.”

O’Shea, playing as tight-head prop, claimed he had thrown a punch (which missed its target) in retaliation after an opponent – whom he claimed had been temporarily released from a life ban for thuggery to face the Lions – attacked scrum-half Roger Young. “It happened right in front of me. I took exception and intervened on Roger’s behalf,” O’Shea recalled.

O'Shea followed by his Lions team-mate Willie John McBride, South Africa, 1968
O'Shea followed by his Lions team-mate Willie John McBride, South Africa, 1968 - Shutterstock

Pandemonium ensued: “They all came at me. The ref yelled for No 3 to get off. But I didn’t know what number I was. I had to ask our winger.”

As O’Shea was walking off the pitch a man came out of the crowd and  punched him in the jaw. “I thought he was a Taffy coming to shake hands... All of a sudden, Willie-John [McBride, who was not playing that day] jumped the fence and hit the man.
“I said ‘I’m out of here’ and as I went to the tunnel the crowd started pelting me. If it wasn’t nailed down, they picked it up and threw it at me.”

Back in the dressing room O’Shea was convinced his tour was over: “I’d be sent home. I’d never play representative rugby again.” He could not believe it after the match, which the Lions won 37-9, when he was told to put on his blazer and join the rest of the team sitting in the stands: “Telegrams of congratulations started arriving next day.”

O’Shea received only a reprimand when the disciplinary committee met in Johannesburg the following morning, the South African chairman of the committee explaining that consideration had been given to the “irresponsible behaviour of a small minority of the spectators”.

According to the former Wales Lion John Taylor, the incident was the genesis of the famous Willie John McBride “99” call, employed by McBride when he captained the Lions on the 1974 tour of South Africa, the idea being that if a Springbok committed an offence, McBride would synchronise the Lions’ retaliation by shouting “99” and the entire team would immediately go to war, flattening the nearest opponent. Amid the carnage, it would be impossible for the referee to isolate one man, as O’Shea had been. There were some ugly moments in 1974, but not a single Lions player was sent off.

John Patrick O’Shea was born in June 2 1940 to Roman Catholic parents, Irish immigrants who ran pubs in the Newport area and Caerleon in Wales. In fact he was born in Portishead, near Bristol, where his parents had taken refuge after Newport was bombed. They soon returned to Wales, where they ran a working men’s club in Oakdale, near Caerphilly.

John’s father died when he was young, and as his mother was not allowed to run the club on her own she returned to Caerleon. John, at the time, was being educated at Lewis School, Pengam, where he was capped for Welsh Schoolboys, and as his mother did not want to remove him from the school, he was taken in by the parents of a friend. He became so fond of the family, members of the Anglican Church in Wales, that he converted.

He went on to teacher training college, but dropped out to begin work as a salesman with Heinz. He then got a job as a brewery rep with Courage and at about the same time joined Cardiff, making 213 appearances with the team from 1963 to 1970 and scoring 19 tries. He was the club captain in the 1969-1970 season.

O’Shea made his international debut for Wales against Scotland at Murrayfield in February 1967 and was capped three times for Wales that year and twice in 1968. During the 1968 Lions tour, on which he played eight games including the first Test against South Africa, he also became the first Lions prop to score two tries in a game when he crossed the line twice against Rhodesia.

O’Shea hung up his boots in 1970, and at about the same time was promoted by Courage to manage a team of reps based in Cornwall, where he played a few games for the Penzance and Newlyn Pirates.

But, wanting to break into the Australian market, Courage then sent him to Melbourne. He remained in Australia, taking Australian citizenship and becoming general manager of Power Brewing in Brisbane and later a trade relations director with Bacardi Lion in Sydney.

While living in Wales he had married Judy Wilde, with whom he had a son, Rick O’Shea, who became a BBC Wales rugby pundit and presenter. He took his family to Australia but his wife found it hard to settle and returned to Britain. Though they tried to keep the marriage going with annual visits, it was eventually dissolved in the mid-1980s.

O’Shea married, secondly, Marlene Mathews, an Australian sprinter who had won two bronze medals at the 1956 Melbourne Olympics. She survives him with his son.

John O’Shea, born June 2 1940, death announced April 24 2024

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