From The Vaults

12 July 2021
1971 Lions march on in New Zealand

Fresh from their victory in Dunedin, the Lions moved on to Invercargill to play Southland in mid-week. Their main injury worries focused around Gareth Edwards and his ability to play in the second test a fortnight later. Although Ray Hopkins had played almost the entire first test with considerable verve, Edwards was a supremely gifted scrum half as a link with backs and forwards and to take the field without him again was a genuine concern. Hopkins played well in the victories over Southland, Taranaki and the New Zealand Universities before Edwards was declared fit for selection for the second test at Lancaster Park in Christchurch on Saturday 10 July.

The Lions made just one change to their side, bringing in David Duckham on the left wing to replace the young Welshman John Bevan, an exuberant tryscorer but suspect under pressure in defence. The All Blacks resisted the temptation to make wholesale changes, but they did pension off Fergie McCormick and replace him with the Otago full back, Laurie Mains. They were forced to make an unscheduled change and brought Alex Wyllie into the back row to replace Alan Sutherland who unluckily broke his left leg in a charity match.

On a fine day, the All Blacks had the best start imaginable. The Lions conceded a five-yard scrum after five minutes from which Sid Going passed to his fly half, Bob Burgess, who ran diagonally to score ten yards from the corner while the Lions defence was covering the threat of Bryan Williams on the left wing. The conversion was missed and the All Blacks held the lead until the 21st minute when a loose kick was picked up by JPR Williams on his 25 and he strode upfield, linked with Mike Gibson who launched Gerald Davies on a thrilling fifty-yard sprint for the line. Barry John missed the conversion but the Lions were on level terms. Three minutes later Sid Going scored after a drive masterminded by the All Black back row. Laurie Mains converted and it was left to Barry John to kick a 50-yard penalty in the 38th minute to leave the score at 8-6 in the All Blacks favour at the interval.

NEW ZEALAND - 1971: Sid Going of New Zealand clears the ball upfield during a test match on the British Lions Tour to New Zealand in 1971. (Photo Getty Images)

The second half turned on the award of a controversial penalty try after ten minutes when Gerald Davies was deemed to have deliberately tackled Bryan Williams without the ball after a Sid Going break with the try-line in front of him. The Lions could not turn the tide despite their set-piece superiority and the All Blacks swept to victory with a second try to Bob Burgess and one of the all-time great forward tries by Ian Kirkpatrick who stormed to the corner from 60 yards out leaving a string of would-be tacklers in his wake. A well-taken second try for Gerald Davies and a Barry John drop goal gave respectability to the score line in the final minutes but the All Blacks were comfortable winners by 22 points to 12.

There were three weeks before the third test during which the Lions notched up four more victories over provincial sides including the noted scalp of Auckland a week before the test. The Lions made just two changes for this vital clash at Athletic Park, Wellington on Saturday 31 July. Gordon Brown replaced Delme Thomas in the second row and the uncapped Derek Quinnell was brought into the back row instead of Peter Dixon to provide much needed heft in the scrums. The All Blacks were forced into two late changes due to the withdrawal of Bryan Williams with a groin injury and an injury to their impressive lineout jumper, Peter Whiting. To replace the latter, the selectors to general surprise asked Brian Lochore, the former All Black captain to come out of retirement and play out of position in the second row.

The display of the Lions in the first twenty minutes of the third test was decisive. Barry John dropped a goal after four minutes, Gerald Davies scored in the corner after eight minutes with Barry John converting, and Edwards broke through the All Black defence in the eighteenth minute by running from a line-out and passing to Barry John who went in under the posts and duly converted his own try. A 13-0 lead at such an early stage of the match proved to be insurmountable and, despite strenuous efforts to close the gap, the All Blacks were only able to manage a try from Laurie Mains after twelve minutes of the second half. The Lions were now 2-1 up and favourites to take the series for the first time in the history of their tests against the All Blacks.

The Lions negotiated the final three provincial matches unbeaten to leave them with the exceptional record of 20 consecutive victories in New Zealand outside the tests. Equally important, only one of their victorious third test side was injured and unable to take the field in the final test at Eden Park, Auckland on 14 August 1971. A flare-up of a knee injury meant that Derek Quinnell had to withdraw, and he was replaced by Peter Dixon for his third test of the series. For the All Blacks, the key changes were that Peter Whiting was fit to return in the second row and Wayne Cottrell moved from the centre to fly half to replace the injured Bob Burgess.

With the series at stake, this was a very tight match in which the lead constantly changed hands. An impressive backline move saw the All Black fly half Cottrell double round his inside centre to score the opening try after four minutes. Mains converted and added a penalty goal six minutes later. Barry John missed two penalty attempts and the Lions did not claw back the 8-0 deficit until just before half-time when John kicked a penalty and Dixon scored a try following a Gareth Edwards thrust close to the line. John converted to leave the score 8-8 at half-time.

NEW ZEALAND - 1971: John Taylor of the British Lions is tackled during a match on the British Lions Tour to New Zealand in 1971. (Photo Getty Images)

The advantage on the scoreboard of a second penalty goal from John three minutes into the second half was nullified by a try from a lineout scored by the All Black flanker Tom Lister, but a most unlikely occurrence four minutes later gave the Lions a 14-11 lead. Full back JPR Williams gathered the ball almost fifty yards from the All Black posts and dropped a soaring goal, the only one of his entire test career, to give the Lions the lead. Barry John kept up the pressure on the All Blacks by largely adopting a kicking strategy and the Lions held their three-point lead until eight minutes before the end when Dixon stepped offside and Mains kicked the ensuing penalty.

The final minutes were unbearably tense, but the Lions held on for a 14-14 draw and the securing of a test series in New Zealand. It was only the third time, and the first time since 1949, that the All Blacks had lost a test series at home. For the Lions, it was a unique achievement unrivalled over their five subsequent tours to the 'Land of the Long White Cloud'.

About the Author - A professional musician and arts administrator, Richard Steele has been on the committee of the World Rugby Museum at Twickenham since 2005 and is the co-author of the RFU's 150th anniversary book 'England Rugby 150 Years'.