In a new series, Planet Rugby looks back at the lasting memories a rugby player has and what has followed since. Up first, it’s John Bentley.
Few forget ‘that try’.
1997, British and Irish Lions v Gauteng; a speculative kick from Gauteng lands into the arms of Neil Jenkins. In the 11 seconds that followed, John Bentley, with shimmies hither and thither, steps off each foot, beat nine players before searing under the posts to deliver a score that changed a tour, defined a career and became one of the most celebrated tries in rugby history.
Passion with the Pride
John Bentley was, at one point, a household name in rugby; a man that sprinkled stardust in both rugby matches and tour DVD’s, his comedic character and self-deprecation became features of the sport in the late 90s, and made ‘Bentos’ the central star of the seminal ‘Living With The Lions’ documentary.
It came late for Bentley; a man plucked from Rugby League to deliver professionalism and passion to the 1997 Lions, he succeeded in both with equal measure. His roots straddled both codes, playing amateur League and Union until the age of 17. However, Bentley wanted more and is open and honest at the depth of his young aspiration:
“By the age of 18, I was succeeding both as a centre and a wing in both codes, but I felt I could make it and around that time I mapped what I call ‘my pathway’.
“At that time, the key to unlock international selection was a good season with Yorkshire, who at that time had some stellar talent in Winterbottom, Barley, Harrison, the Buckton brothers and many more, and I became an integral part of that side,” explained Bentley.
Always the Bride
“My first cap was in the one off inaugural Millennium Trophy match in 1988,” he said.
“21-11 to England and after it, and I’m not sure if I was disappointed in my performance or the opportunity, I felt depressed, that it was an anti-climax. Don’t forget, in ’88 a winger got the ball almost as a last resort, especially a winger in an England shirt! But I’d hyped myself up so far that I became a lame passenger.
“It was like a bride looking forward to her marriage and finding her husband was suffering from first night nerves!” laughed Bentley.
As time progressed and with Bentley playing mainly in the centre now, it became clear to him that despite some strong head to head showings against Will Carling, that the young Durham centre was being groomed for greater things:
“When Will was announced in the centre for England, rumours abounded that he was the heir apparent. I was struggling a bit for form, fitness and confidence, and I wasn’t courting a move to Rugby League, but when you play in the heartlands of Lancashire and Yorkshire, offers weren’t far away,” he explained.
“I enjoyed League,” smiled Bentley.
“People like Fran Cotton and Steve Smith at Sale ‘got it’. They wished me the best and for a time I combined Policing with pro’ing!
“What Rugby League showed me was professionalism, fitness and a huge step up in physicality were required to succeed.
“Winning and losing bonuses gave focus,” he reminisced.
“It was the difference between shopping at Waitrose or Aldi the following week!”
Winds of Change
“It all changed in 1995. It would be easy to cite Union moving to professionalism, but for me personally, the parallel change with Rupert Murdoch moving the Super League season open up my options.
“As luck would have it a chance meeting in Huddersfield with Rob Andrew offered me a Union contract in the winter with Newcastle Falcons and from there, I ended up playing 12 months a year for a fair time.
“In early ’97, Fran Cotton contacted me to see was I available to join the Lions tour. It’s not something that took very long to answer, and I confess I had to lie when saying yes, as legally I had no release clause in my contract.
“The Lions tour, well that was well documented and I believe all of the Leaguies and I added steel and a level of physicality, especially in the backs, that wasn’t really seen in British rugby at that time.
“I have to confess I did have a few disappointment thereafter and niggling rib and other injuries really didn’t help form or confidence, and after a few England appearances, a new team emerged under Clive and the rest is history.”
A Marriage of Two Loves
“Sandy, my wife has a good perspective: ‘One tour, one try. one speech. Get over yourself you daft bugger!’
“But the truth, in the nicest way, is I am married to both Sandy and the game. When I stopped playing at 36, I became Cleckheaton’s Director of Rugby. After a few games I concluded I was best shutting up and I was best putting my boots on.
“However those boots stayed on another 12 years after that and I still get itchy feet three years later.
“I was lucky; if you take the analogy of a squaddie moving from the Army to civvie street, then they get a complete culture change.
“Rugby has been a constant for me, and I’ve just gone down different pathways, whether as Community Development Managers Role for Leeds Rugby, and my other coaching and speaking commitments which are significant.
“The game informs my personal ethics, my values, those same values I’ve instilled in my three children.
“Sandy, my wife, has been an angel in facilitating it, and just recently, as my eldest daughter got married, I discovered you cannot understand how to treat a woman like a princess until you’ve let your daughter go. It was a big moment for me and I am proud of the couple.”
Was the try career defining?
“Look, people come up to me and talk about it; it’s not as if I have to mention it, but I do occasionally remind people I scored seven tries on that tour!
“But yes, it’s paid the bills in after dinner speeches, it’s got me work, it’s had a huge influence.
“In the final analysis, I am non-conformist, I want to take risks but I am loyal to the team and sport.
“So, if it had those qualities, then yeah, maybe it was the definitive try.”
John Bentley played two Tests for the British and Irish Lions, five Tests for England and four Tests for Great Britain RL. He now works as a Business and Community Development Manage for Leeds Rhinos and is a regular speaker, coach and commentator on the game. John is also raising money for his 1997 Lions colleague and MND sufferer, Doddie Weir, as Doddie embarks against a struggle with an incurable disease.
John was speaking to James While