Major teams: Coventry, Sale
Test span: 1971-81
England caps: 31 (31 starts)
Lions caps: 7
Test points: 4 (1T)
Brain and brawn combined to make Fran Cotton an all-time great. The son of a good rugby league player, young Fran took up union at grammar school, was capped by England while studying PE and maths at Loughborough University, and has become a successful businessman and rugby administrator later in life.
His 6ft 2in frame helped him become an outstanding prop who could play on either side of the scrum. He had a hard edge, and after he punched his fellow Lion and tighthead rival Sandy Carmichael at public training on the 1974 tour to South Africa, he earned the Test spot and played a key role alongside Bobby Windsor and Ian McLaughlan for the unbeaten tourists.
Windsor said: “Frannie was massive on that 1974 Lions tour, like a great English oak.”
In fact, the man from Wigan never lost a match in South Africa, playing there with England in 1972 and returning with the Lions in 1980, when he headed home after four appearances due to a heart condition.
Cotton’s versatility meant he played loosehead in England’s Grand Slam-winning team in 1980 and on the 1977 Lions tour to New Zealand, when he was part of a pack so dominant that the All Blacks resorted to three-man scrums in a bid to get the ball straight out. During that trip photographer Colin Elsey snapped the iconic ‘mud man’ picture of Cotton, his face caked in mud, his eyes gleaming through.
Cotton captained England three times and even led them in the World Cup Sevens in 1973 – extraordinary for a prop.
His playing career ended with a leg injury in 1981 and six years later he set up the Cotton Traders clothing company with team-mate Steve Smith.
Cotton was banned for a decade by the RFU for earning money from writing a book, but was welcomed back to union in time to become manager of the 1997 Lions tour to South Africa. His success as a Lions player, his understanding of the Springbok mentality and his management expertise and attention to detail meant he played a key role as the Lions upset the odds and beat the Springboks. No doubt the South Africans respect Cotton, but they must also be sick of the sight of him!
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