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Obituary: Former Cardiff, Wales and Lions prop John O’Shea passes

John O'Shea as the proud captain of Cardiff against the 1969 Springboks

Obituary: Former Cardiff, Wales and Lions prop John O’Shea passes

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John O’Shea, one of the most combative and ferocious Welsh props of the Sixties, has died in Australia at the age of 83 after a lengthy battle against cancer.

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A jovial and well-liked player off the field, he was a handful on it in more than 200+ games for Cardiff, five caps for Wales, seven outings with the Barbarians and a tour with the British & Irish Lions to South Africa in 1968.

Although born in Weston-Super-Mare, he learned his rugby at Lewis School, in Pengam, and went on to win three caps for the Wales Secondary Schools in 1958. All three games were won – against Yorkshire Schools at Newport (11-6), England at Twickenham (8-3) and France (17-0) at Stradey Park, Llanelli.

He was one of four members of the pack that season who went on to play for Wales – Brian Thomas, Roger Michaelson and David Nash were the others – and like Nash, who went to South Africa in 1962, O’Shea toured with the Lions six years later. Also in the side that season were double Lion Ken Jones and future Wales coach John Ryan.

He went to St Luke’s College, Exeter, after leaving school and played a few seasons for Newbridge before joining Cardiff at the start of the 1963-64 season. He played for Wales U23 in their 8-0 win over the touring Canadians at the start of the 1962-63 season and became a stalwart of the Monmouthshire County XV in the Welsh Counties Cup.

He appeared in no fewer than five finals between 1961-67, winning in 1961, 63 and 65. He missed the replay of the 1964 final against Glamorganshire, which ended in a pointless draw at the first attempt.

John O'Shea

John O’Shea (back row, second from left) earned five Wales caps

He lost on his first three appearances for the Blue & Blacks, against Ebbw Vale on debut, Bridgend and London Welsh, but then lost only three times more as he clocked up 37 appearances in his first campaign. He missed only eight games, one of them being the match against the touring All Blacks.

He soon made up for that by playing in the victorious Cardiff side against the 1966 Wallabies and was in the East Wales side that drew 3-3 with the 1967 New Zealand tourists. In 1969, he played for Cardiff against South Africa in the Welsh capital.

He made his first appearance in a Welsh trial for the Possibles in a 5-0 win over the Probables at Newport on 12 January 1963, once again linking up with his Welsh Schools pack colleagues Michaelson and Thomas. He won his first Welsh cap against Scotland at Murrayfield in February 1967 as one of six new caps.

Joining him on debut was his Cardiff clubmate Billy Hullin, Aberavon lock Billy Mainwaring, and the London Welsh trio of Billy Raybould, Brian Rees and John Taylor. The Scots turned around a 5-0 interval deficit to win 11-5.

O’Shea held his place for the 3-0 defeat by the Irish in Cardiff in the next game but was then dropped. He returned to taste victory over Scotland at the Arms Park in the 1968 Five Nations and also played in the losses to Ireland and France, who won their first Grand Slam in the Welsh capital in 1968.

At the end of the season he became one of 11 Welshmen, six of them from Cardiff, selected for the 1968 Lions tour to South Africa. It was to prove a tour of mixed emotions for O’Shea, who appeared in eight games.

He scored two tries in a big win over Rhodesia, in a game played in front of the Rhodesian Prime Minister Ian Smith, won all seven games against provincial teams and battled his way into the first Test team, which went down 25-20 to the Springboks.

But on 29 June he claimed the unwanted distinction of becoming the first Lion to be sent-off since 1904, when England forwad Denys Dobson was dismissed in the game against Northern Districts in Newcastle, NSW.

The difference was that Dobson received his marching orders for dissent, while O’Shea became the first tourist to be sent-off for violent conduct. To be fair, it was more a case of self-defence from the Cardiff prop that was unfortunately picked up by referee Bert Wooley.

John Reason, in his book detailing the tour ‘The 1968 Lions’ wrote about the incident and O’Shea. The player eventually earned a reprimand for an incident that had been brewing from the start of the game,

“The trouble began in the first scrum . . . and before long fits were flying about in the tunnel of the scrum as fast as the legs, and there was some butting too,” wrote Reason.

“At the first line out O’Shea was kneed in the face by an opponent and he went looking for the culprit there and then with the same expression on his face that he had when he was eventually sent off. It was an uncompromising beginning.”

Irish scrum half Roger Young was then knocked out of the way by a home forward. O’Shea stepped in.

“As Young moved in towards the ball, one of the Eastern Transvaal forwards went to knock him out of the way. John O’Shea held him off, and as he did so, his opponent hit him. O’Shea punched him back and then found himself being pummeled from all sides,” Reason continued.

While all this was going on, the home scrum half ran in for a try and the referee was following the play. When he turned around this is what he saw:

“He saw Hector touch down, and when he looked round, he saw O’Shea running back down the field after Britz, swinging punches which did not connect. The referee gave Hector a try and sent off O’Shea.

“There was an exceptionally wide running track circling the pitch and O’Shea had to walk across it to get back to the dressing room. He was escorted by Tony Horton, who tried to stop the South African cameramen from taking pictures of O’Shea.

“Ronnie Dawson (coach) walked out to join them and as they were nearing the players’ tunnel, they were pelted with missiles thrown by the crowd. A spectator jumped over the barrier and tried to attack O’Shea. Various Lions not playing in the match were sitting in the grandstand and they vaulted the barrier and rushed to O’Shea’s assistance.

“One of the first over the barrier was Willie John McBride. He hit O’Shea’s attacker with a left and a right which almost buried that gentleman’s spectacles in his forehead. A milling, jostling crowd jammed in the players’ tunnel. Ironically, the man who was trying hardest to restrain McBride was O’Shea.

“In the end, some sort of order was restored, and O’Shea made his way to the dressing room and the police removed the man who had attacked him.

“O’Shea was in tears after the game. He apologized to the referee, and the captain of Eastern Transvaal and there was no bitterness or anger after the game. They knew what sort of man O’Shea was. They knew that he had a heart as big as himself and was probably the player most loved by everyone in the touring party.”

The disciplinary committee met on the Monday after the game – the tour manager, David Brookes and two representatives of the Eastern Transvaal union.

“’I hope they are more lenient that I am’ said O’Shea ruefully. O’Shea, of course, was the judge at the Lions’ weekly court, and a real hanging judge he was, too. His verdicts were either, ‘Guilty. Fined half a crown,’ or ‘Not guilty. Fined sixpence.’ Almost everyone was found guilty,” added Reason.

All of this happened in front of the Prime Minister of South Africa, John Vorster, although the outcome of the disciplinary came down in favour of a ‘reprimand’ rather than a suspension. Having already apologized to all concerned, O’Shea then sent the referee two complimentary tickets to the third Test. A touch of class as well as contrition!

He had toured South Africa with Cardiff at the end of the 1966-67 season and returned in 1969 as part of the Barbarians touring party. On that trip he captained the team against Rhodesia

O’Shea led Cardiff for three seasons, captaining the side against the touring Springboks. That came after he had hit the headlines once again for becoming the first captain of the Blue & Blacks to be sent off in a game at Coventry on 20 September 1969.

This time he received a three-week suspension from the WRU for an altercation with home scrum half Bill Gittings in the final five minutes of a 13-5 defeat, his side’s first of the season.

In later life, O’Shea emigrated to Australia where he married one of Australia’s greatest athletes, Marlene Matthews. As a sprinter she set six world records, won both sprints at the Commonwealth Games in Cardiff in 1958 and won bronzes in both the 100 and 200 metres at the Melbourne Olympics.

The WRU sends sincere condolences to Marlene, his son Richard, and all other family and friends of John O’Shea.

John Patrick O’Shea (Wales Cap No: 707 – 5 caps; Lions No: 481 – 1 Test) b. 2 June 1940; d. 24 April 2024.

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