12 July 2021
From The Vaults
When the thirty players selected for the 26-match British Lions tour of Australia and New Zealand assembled in Eastbourne in April 1971, the consensus was that a strong squad had been picked but that it faced a formidable task in a series of four tests against an All Blacks team that had lost only three tests in the previous five years.
A shadow over the hopes and expectations of the tour party was the knowledge that the Lions had only won two out the twenty tests they had played against the All Blacks in their six previous tours to New Zealand. In June 1930, they won the first test 6-3 at Carisbrook, Dunedin with a sensational last minute try from the Welsh winger Jack Morley after a breakout from the Lions 25 by his compatriot the wing forward Ivor Jones, but they went on to lose the next three tests. In July 1959 the Lions scored four tries to nil but were desperately unlucky to lose the first test at Dunedin by one point due to the pinpoint accuracy of full back Don Clarke who kicked six penalty goals. The All Blacks won the second and third tests, but the Lions secured their revenge in the fourth test at Eden Park, Auckland with victory by 9 points to 6 and three tries to nil.
The 1966 tour down under was not a success despite impressive victories in the two tests against Australia at the beginning of the tour. Although there were many fine individual players in this Lions touring party, they came up against one of the great All Black sides under Brian Lochore in the early stages of a run of 17 consecutive test victories. The All Black pack was tough and mobile resulting in the comprehensive defeat of the Lions in each of the four tests.
The 1971 Lions faced a stiff challenge but, although the long-serving second row forward Colin Meads was appointed to captain the All Blacks, several players integral to their historic winning run had either retired or lost form. The young Samoan winger Bryan Williams, Maori scrum half Sid Going, hooker Tane Norton, second row Peter Whiting and the outstanding wing forward Ian Kirkpatrick supported Meads, but the remainder of the All Black squad was relatively short on international experience.
The Lions were shrewdly managed by former Scottish international winger and 1950 British Lion Doug Smith and superbly coached by the Llanelli coach and former Welsh three-quarter Carwyn James. They chose Welsh centre John Dawes as their captain and based their tour party selection around the 1971 Wales team which had won the Grand Slam. It was a team which, in retrospect, can be seen to have contained some of the greatest players in British rugby history.
The backs were both outstanding individually and capable of wonderful flowing rugby as a unit. JPR Williams at full back, Gerald Davies on the wing, captain John Dawes in the centre and the half-back partnership of Barry John and Gareth Edwards were joined by the mercurial English winger David Duckham and the Irish midfield genius Mike Gibson, a veteran of the 1966 Lions tour of New Zealand and the 1968 tour of South Africa. Players of the quality of the English full back Bob Hiller and centre John Spencer and the young Welsh winger John Bevan who played in the first test and scored 18 tries on tour added to the backline strength available.
There was valuable experience in the forwards too with veterans of previous Lions tours in hookers John Pullin and Frank Laidlaw, Irish prop Ray McLoughlin, the second row forwards Willie-John McBride and Delme Thomas, and John Taylor in the back row. New Lions included the Scots Ian 'Mighty Mouse' McLauchlan at prop and Gordon Brown in the second row, and Peter Dixon and Mervyn Davies in the back row. At the start of the tour, the national representation was spread between 13 Welsh, 6 Scottish, 6 Irish and 5 English players.
The opening match of the tour against Queensland saw the Lions suffer what was their only defeat on tour outside the tests. A narrow 14-12 victory against New South Wales was more re-assuring and Barry John impressed with his kicking from hand and at goal, including a vital 45 yard penalty in the mud early in the second half which ultimately was the difference between the two sides.
The Lions moved on to New Zealand and quickly found their rhythm with eight consecutive victories by substantial margins before facing a Canterbury side studded with All Blacks in their eleventh tour match a week before the 1st test. This was a viciously contested match which, although a 14-3 victory for the Lions, led to serious injuries to both their frontline props, Ray McLoughlin and Sandy Carmichael. They took no further part in the tour leaving the Lions dependent on their two reserve props, Ian McLauchlan and the Irish prop Sean Lynch, to hold the scrum steady until replacements arrived from the UK. They more than fulfilled their role and played alongside John Pullin throughout the test series.
A convincing mid-week victory over Marlborough-Nelson Bays was achieved without further serious injuries and the Lions faced the All Blacks in the 1st test at Carisbrook in front of 45,000 spectators on Saturday 26 June 1971. The All Blacks picked seven new caps, but pundits in New Zealand reckoned that the match was difficult to call because the Lions team was highly experienced, despite their front row issues. As it turned out, it was one of the most lauded All Blacks, the full back Fergie McCormick in his 16th international, who experienced a nightmare of a match as he was dragged ceaselessly across the pitch by the masterly line kicking of Barry John.
The Lions suffered a blow early in the match when Gareth Edwards injured his hamstring and had to be replaced by his Welsh understudy Ray Hopkins from Maesteg. Despite this change of personnel, they unexpectedly took the lead in the 16th minute when McLauchlan charged down a desperate kick for touch and followed up to score his first and only test try. Barry John missed the conversion, but the Lions reached half-time with the score 3-all after McCormick had kicked a penalty goal two minutes before half-time.
The All Blacks subjected the Lions to a severe onslaught in the second half, but McCormick missed a vital penalty attempt whereas Barry John kicked the two chances that came his way in the 56th and 76th minutes. The latter penalty ensured victory to the Lions by 9 points to 3. It was first blood in the series to the Lions who had an unbeaten record after 11 matches in New Zealand.
- The Dawes Decades - David Parry-Jones (Seren, Bridgend 2005)
- Lions Rampant - Terry McLean (AH & AW Reed, Wellington 1971)
- Men in Black (Commem 20th Century Edition) - Chester, Palenski & McMillan (Hodder Moa Beckett 2000)
- Playfair Rugby Football Annual 1971-72
- The Victorious Lions - John Reason (Rugby Books 1972)
- The Visitors - RH Chester & NAC McMillan (MOA Publications, Auckland 1990)
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'.