John Bentley: The pride and pitfalls of being a British and Irish Lion
John Bentley: The pride and pitfalls of been a British and Irish Lion

For any British and Irish player in the Rugby Union system, being picked as a Lion is regarded as one of the highest honours.

The British and Irish Lions bring together the best talent from both islands and pit them against some of the best club and international sides on the planet.

Only arriving every four years the tour is considered as must-watch for any Union fan and it has been no different with the 2017 tour around New Zealand.

It has been 20 years since The Lions’ historic trip to South Africa, where they took on the then world champion Springboks and came out as 2-1 Test series winners.

Better than anything I have ever experienced

That side was led by the likes of captain Martin Johnson and current RFU President Jason Leonard, but one player that caught the eye of many was John Bentley who ended the tour as the Lions’ joint-top try scorer with seven.

Bentley was already quite the journeyman on the Rugby League circuit by 97, having already switched codes from the then amateur Union game to League where he would play for Leeds, Halifax and a brief stint with the Balmain Tigers.

Bentley switched codes once again when Union turned professional starting with the Newcastle Falcons back in 1996, part of the side that won their only Premiership title in 1998.

Bentley was a surprise pick for the tour by Fran Cotton, being one of six league players picked to represent the Lions, he stated his surprise at being picked for the tour and his belief that the injection of League professionalism helped the side take on the world champions.

“The Lions experience in South Africa was better than anything I have experienced in rugby league or rugby union,” Bentley stated. “I never expected it to be picked I was in the right place at the right time with the right people who they thought was the right type of player to go to South Africa.”

“I think there was six league boys who went and what I think the rugby union boys, without been rude, took from it was the approach to professionalism,” the winger stressed. “Professionalism isn't about been paid money.”

“It’s about how you conduct yourself on and off the field,” he declared “And importantly the attitude towards training which had a real positive influence on that group of players in 97.”

“We set some high standards in training in the build-up the games, were very competitive and the competition for places was fierce,” the 50-year-old added. “Which stood [us] in great stead for probably one of the greatest challenges in world rugby against the Springboks."

Just lost sight of it all

Almost overnight Bentley and the rest of the squad were the nation's sweethearts, with Bentley going from someone infamous in the game to briefly becoming famous on a national scale.

Unfortunately for the winger, his rugby career began to drop off upon the return from South Africa, earning his final England cap against the Springboks in November of 97 before switching codes once again to join the Huddersfield Giants. Injury would ruin his career as he only lasted ten games before been forced into retirement.

Fast forward into the present day and the magnifying glass that Bentley and the rest of Lions squad had on them has been intensified massively on the present squad with more TV investment and the rise of social media, Bentley spoke about his brief stint with fame after the Lions tour and admitted that for a little while he "lost sight" of who he was.

“I actually went away determined to be remembered on the field rather than off it for once I am a bit of a clown and bit of a joker," he said. "And I have got to be honest when I first got back I got thrust onto a pedestal that I wasn't accustomed to sitting on."

"Suddenly I was famous for a short period time and I found that hard to cope with if I'm honest,” the winger admitted. “You've been in a bubble on tour in South Africa we didn't realise how big it was back home."

"I wasn't used to that sort of centre of attention, I enjoy attention but wasn't used to all of that," he conceded. “I was uncomfortable with it and possibly for a short period of time I lost sight of what I actually was I was just a rugby player I wasn't some movie star."

“It was hard but I've always had a good family to keep it real," Bentley concluded. "But I am glad I experienced it because it made me a better person.”