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Mark Hoskins

Mark Hoskins writes

Posted Friday, February 5th 2021

Obituary: John Pullin

Bristol Bears regret to announce the death of club legend John Pullin, one of the greatest hookers in the history of rugby union.

During an illustrious career for club, county and country, he captained England to historic victories in South Africa and New Zealand and was a member of the famous 1971 British Lions team.

John Vivian Pullin was born on November 1st 1941 and grew up on the family farm in Aust. He was educated at Thornbury Grammar School and Royal Agricultural College, Cirencester, and he played his early club rugby for Bristol Saracens. He made his Bristol United debut in the 1959-60 season and his first team debut against Newport in September 1961, when his opposite number was the great Welsh hooker Bryn Meredith. He was awarded his first team cap in 1964 and his club blazer a year later. In all, he made 298 first team appearances, scoring eleven tries. Perhaps his saddest moment in a Bristol shirt was when he was injured in the very first minute of the 1973 cup final at Twickenham. Replacements were not allowed at the time, and Bristol lost the game with fourteen men. His final Bristol match was at Gosforth in 1978.

John made his England debut against Wales at Twickenham in 1966, and following England’s tour of Canada in 1967 he made the number two shirt his own. He played 42 times in all for his country, which was a record at one time, and he captained England on thirteen occasions. England defeated South Africa for the first time in 1969, and John scored a crucial try in this game. In 1972 England toured South Africa under John’s captaincy, enjoying an unbeaten tour and famously defeating the Springboks in Johannesburg. A year later he captained England to a shock victory over New Zealand in Auckland. Later the same year he completed a notable hat trick when he led England to victory over Australia at Twickenham.

In 1972 the political unrest in Ireland meant that both Scotland and Wales declined to play fixtures in the country. The situation was no better a year later, but John led his England side to Dublin despite the risks involved. The team received a moving and prolonged ovation on taking the field at Lansdowne Road. Ireland went on to win the game, after which John crowned a memorable day with his speech at the evening dinner. “We may not be very good,” he began, “but at least we turn up.” The remark brought the house down, and when Steve Tomlin’s well-received biography of John was published in 2019, “At Least We Turn Up” was inevitably chosen as the title.

John toured twice with the Lions, to South Africa in 1968 and New Zealand and Australia in 1971. He played in seven tests during these tours, including all four tests in New Zealand. The 1971 Lions famously won the series 2-1 with one game drawn, giving them a series victory in New Zealand for the first time. Bristol made him an honorary vice-president of the club on his return.

John enjoyed another prestigious victory over the All Blacks in 1973 when he played in the famous Barbarians game in Cardiff. He was the only English player involved in the passing movement which led to the spectacular Gareth Edwards try at the start of the game. In all he played nineteen times for the Barbarians, and was later a member of their committee. In county rugby he played 48 times for Gloucestershire, frequently captaining them. He played in six County Championship finals and in many games against touring nations for regional selections. Amongst these were victories for Western Counties against Australia in 1967 and Fiji in 1970, as well as the Western Counties draw with South Africa in 1969.

A farmer in Aust throughout his working life, John Pullin kept fit through his daily work. He would often train by running across the Severn Bridge and back. As a hooker he possessed incredible strength, and he was renowned for the speed of his striking in the scrum. He had bravely battled illness for some time, continuing to work in all weathers. John will be greatly missed by his many friends at all levels of the game, and all at Bristol Bears send their sincere sympathy to John’s family at this very sad time. 


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