The life and times of Daily Telegraph rugby and cricket writer John Mason

PETER JACKSON, President of the Rugby Union Writers’ Club, on the life and eventful times of the veteran Daily Telegraph rugby and cricket journalist John Mason who has died at the age of 89.


John Mason never knew how dangerously close he came to losing his life aboard a plane carrying the England rugby squad on their tour of Argentina in the summer of 1990, the first by a British team since the Falklands War.

Had he been aware of the emergency unfolding around him on the descent of the Aerolineas Argentinas flight from Cordoba to Buenos Aires, the Daily Telegraph’s renowned rugby correspondent would have rebuked himself for committing one of the cardinal sins of his craft.

From his very early days as a 16-year-old on the Evening Post in Bristol, young Mason would have studied the journalistic commandments as chiselled on the newsroom tablet of stone and noted one in particular:

As a reporter, thou shalt not become the story.

He would have hated being the centre of attention, a most regrettable distraction from the solitude of composing a piece on England’s prospects under Will Carling’s youthful captaincy for the concluding Test against the Pumas 48 hours later.

Mason had survived one heart attack some years before and promptly given up smoking.  Now he was in the throes of another, his condition becoming more critical by the minute as he lapsed in and out of consciousness before the plane landed.


John Mason and friends recovering from a jet ski along the Wanganui River during the Lions tour of New Zealand, June 1983. From left: Mason, Tony Bodley (Express), Ian Todd (Sun), Chris Rea (BBC), Dave Rogers (Getty Images), Edmund van Esbeck (Irish Times), Karl Johnston (Irish Press).

What happened next convinced the press pack on board that their stricken colleague owed his life to the prompt actions of a passenger who divided his devotions between the England Rugby team and Leeds United FC, the England team doctor Terry Crystal.

Steve Bale, covering the tour for The Independent during a decades-long friendship with Mason, said: “I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that Terry saved John’s life.   In the opinion of every journalist on that flight, Terry’s actions extended John’s life by 32 years.’’

Dr Crystal, now retired after many years in charge of medical matters at his beloved Leeds, interrupted a holiday on the Adriatic to recall the frantic finale to the Cordoba flight more than 30 years ago.

“To say I saved John’s life is probably a bit too dramatic,’’ he said. “I certainly helped. Rushing from the back of the plane to his seat near the front, I found him in a collapsed state with a very rapid pulse.

“In those circumstances, it was important to have someone with him who knew what he was doing. Doing the wrong things at that time could very easily have been catastrophic.

All the better for shedding a few pounds but still partial to a few pints of ‘foaming libation,’ Mason wasted no time reminding all and sundry that his nose for news remained as sharp as ever

“For example after we got him off the plane, this porter insisted that John had to walk to the ambulance a few hundred yards away which was ridiculous. That would have caused another collapse and put him in still greater danger.

“A big argument ensued with me trying to make myself understood in Spanish. Eventually they brought a stretcher and the first doctor who saw him was very good but he was trying to deal with 20-odd other patients at the same time.

“Despite the general madness, we managed to get him into a nearby private hospital. While I didn’t give him anything like cardiac massage because he didn’t need it, mine was an important role, ensuring they were able to stabilise his condition. John always said that he could never remember a single thing about it.’’

Because of the space required to meet the demands of his condition, the Telegraph had to fly him home first class on the strict understanding that someone had to be with him. The rugby tour over, Barry Newcombe of the Sunday Express, rose to the occasion.

It didn’t take Mason long to make a full recovery, hurling himself back into the fray the following season at a momentous time for a sport wracked by eruptions of Vesuvian frequency over the volcanic end to more than a century of amateurism.

All the better for shedding a few pounds but still partial to a few pints of ‘foaming libation,’ Mason wasted no time reminding all and sundry that his nose for news remained as sharp as ever. 

He never demonstrated it to better effect than when another of those eruptions engulfed Cardiff Arms Park in January 1991. Over the previous 28 years successive English coaches, captains and chairmen had shown unfailing patience in turning up to explain, often in excruciating detail, their failure to win the bi-ennial fixture.

Lo and behold when England outclassed a callow Welsh team and smashed the Cardiff hoodoo to smithereens, they had nothing to say, not even the obvious line about the boys done well. Carling and his team left the dressing-room all muzzled up as if heading for a Trappist convention rather than a night on the town.

A dispute with the BBC over payment for interviews lead to a blanket ban, leaving RFU secretary Dudley Wood in the embarrassing position of having to talk about the team’s sullen silence. While the rest of the national dailies resumed chasing their tails again on the Sunday, Mason struck out purposefully on his own.

He knew something that the rest of us didn’t, that Carling had parked his car at Cheltenham railway station en route to Cardiff and logic dictated that at some time on Sunday the captain would return to collect it and drive back to London. When he turned up, Mason had the field all to himself.

Carling, taken aback at the furore over his team’s action, explained their actions at length and Mason walked off with an exclusive which the Telegraph splashed all over the front page of their Monday morning sports supplement

Carling, taken aback at the furore over his team’s action, explained their actions at length and Mason walked off with an exclusive which the Telegraph splashed all over the front page of their Monday morning sports supplement.

“Well done on the Carling story, Maso,’’ I volunteered through gritted teeth at Twickenham a few days later. “How did you manage it?’’

“Old-fashioned journalistic principles,’’ he said, somehow resisting all temptation to tap his nose for extra effect. “Nothing more, nothing less, old boy.’’

He began learning those principles after leaving Colston’s Boys’ School in Bristol in the summer of 1948, one made forever golden in cricketing folklore by Don Bradman’s invincible Australians. He had spells at the Press Association and the Evening News in London, then returned to Bristol where he shared a desk with another budding Evening Post reporter, Tom Stoppard.

Mason moved to Fleet Street in 1968, as a rugby and cricket reporter on the Telegraph where he forged an alliance with Rob Wildman who had joined the paper from the Leicester Mercury.  

“As a sub-editor with a knowledge of rugby I was a rarity because most of the subs were football people,’’ Rob says.  “John and I just got on. He was a great mate, a good supporter, always very fair with a great understanding of the business.’’

He became the paper’s chief rugby correspondent in 1979, a position which he held until his retirement 18 years later by which time the game had gone professional. As far as Mason was concerned, the game had gone, period.

He wanted to remember rugby as it used to be and swore he would ‘never write another word,’ a vow which held firm despite a handsome offer from the Mail on Sunday. Most of all, he longed for a rewarding retirement.

Each year he and Agnes would sail off from Southampton on the mail boat RMS St Helena and spend blissful days pottering about on the island in the Atlantic where Napoleon Bonaparte met his Waterloo.

A former treasurer and past chairman of the Rugby Union Writers’ Club, he would make a point at social events of raising a glass to two very different people for very different reasons: the disgraced former Telegraph owner Conrad Black in gratitude for the company pension and Dr Terry Crystal for allowing him to enjoy it.

John Mason is survived by his wife, Agnes, daughters Jeanette and Susan, seven grandchildren and four great-grandchildren. His funeral takes place at Kingston Crematorium on April 28 at 12.15pm.