The first man to captain England to victory over the southern hemisphere's big three, John Pullin left an indelible imprint on the game. RW pays tribute to the great hooker
England, and the game of rugby, lost one of the greats this week with news of the passing of John Pullin. He was 79.
The former Bristol hooker played all four Tests of the legendary 1971 Lions series in New Zealand and enjoyed an unbroken seven-year run in the England team, retiring with a then national record of 42 caps.
Pullin was approaching his 78th birthday when a biography of his life came out in 2019.
That his story was told owes something to chance, because author Steve Tomlin only came into contact with the rugged front-rower whilst researching a book on Stack Stevens, a close friend of the Pullin family before his untimely death in 2017. Even then it took a few nudges from Pullin’s children to get his acquiescence.
A man of the soil, Pullin was a quiet character in the dressing room and in the book you won’t find any rip-snorting tales from the many tours – including four to South Africa – that he undertook. In one players’ court he was found guilty of being “too well-behaved” and made to stand in the corner.
A wartime baby, he grew up in the Gloucestershire village of Aust and his first club was Bristol Saracens. His big break came when the first-team hooker had a bike accident and Pullin filled in; a talent scout pointed him Bristol’s way and in his first two senior matches he outplayed Bryn Meredith and Norman Gale, the best two hookers in Wales.
He was only 19 at the time and much of his early career entailed playing second-team fixtures at relatively minor West Country clubs.
Gareth Edwards, who provides the foreword, refers to the speed of Pullin’s hooking and it should be remembered that this was an era when the scrum put-in was strictly monitored and a good hooker had a more significant bearing on a match.
Pullin wore longer studs on his left boot, to assist with grip, and shorter studs on his right boot, for striking the ball. And he wasn’t shy to (illegally) slip his bind on the opposition put-in to gain more leverage.
David Watt, a colleague for club and country, says: “He learned very quickly how to hook with both his left as well as his right foot and was deceptively strong. I guess working on the farm gave him very strong core muscles and he could then use his leg speed to trap a ball coming in against the head for his tighthead prop to sweep it back.”
Pullin’s farming gave him a natural fitness, although ironically his worst injury was being butted on the kneecap by an angry ram.
The book’s title, At Least We Turn Up, refers to his famous speech in Dublin after the England team he captained had defied IRA death threats to play their scheduled Five Nations match in 1973. More remarkable, however, is the fact that Pullin captained England to away victories against South Africa (1972) and New Zealand (1973) during an era of English mediocrity.
He was the first man to captain England to victory over the southern hemisphere big three and not until Martin Johnson three decades later was that feat to be repeated.
A pleasing aspect of the book is occasional ‘time-outs’ by Tomlin to explain the context of Pullin’s career. Young fans of today might struggle to comprehend just how ‘amateur’ rugby was in so many ways back in the Sixties and Seventies.
The absurdity of having no injury replacements is something we’ve raged about many a time. But we didn’t know that even when they were finally introduced, the sub wasn’t allowed to be kitted up in the stands. Thus when Mike Gibson made history on the 1968 Lions tour, replacing the injured Barry John, he had first to hurriedly change out of his civilian clothes!
The inherent flaw of England trials – the fired-up ‘Possibles’ XV frequently toppling the ‘Probables’ and so putting a spanner in the selection works – is also discussed.
And we particularly liked learning of Bristol’s pioneering contribution to lineout throwing; wingers always used to do the job but Bristol’s wingers were seemingly not too clever at it, so prop Roger Grove had a go and it went from there. Pullin himself was not keen on throwing in and often let others do it at club level.
Pullin was eventually ousted from the England team by Peter Wheeler, his last cap coming in a chastening defeat in Paris in 1976.
By the time he concluded his career two years later, he had played 49 Tests (seven of them for the Lions), 296 senior games for Bristol, 48 for Gloucestershire (winning three county titles), and 19 for the Barbarians – he was the only non-Welshman involved in Edwards’s epic try against the 1973 All Blacks.
Towards the end of his life, he still attended events at Bristol Saracens, feeling closer to the grass-roots game than the modern razzmatazz of professional rugby.
John Pullin lived from 1941 to 2021. At Least we turn up: the biography of John Pullin is published by Amberley Press, RRP £14.99. You can buy a copy here.
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