From The Vaults

12 May 2021
The 1971 British and Irish Lions tour of New Zealand

Since the game went professional, in 1995, the lure and mystique of the Lions has grown beyond all recognition. Every tour is now followed by a vast army of fans from the four Home Nations which often outnumbers the home support. It was very different back in 1971, when only a hardy handful travelled to New Zealand to follow what was arguably the greatest of all Lions teams. Managed by Doug Smith, coached by Carwyn James and captained by John Dawes, the 1971 Lions made history with a first (and still only) series win over the All Blacks It was a tour which still resonates with me and made for one of the most memorable summers of my life.

DUNEDIN, NEW ZEALAND - JUNE 26: Barry John of the British Lions is pursued by Tane Norton of New Zealand during the First Test match between New Zealand and the British Lions at Carisbrook on June 26, 1971 in Dunedin, New Zealand. The British Lions won the match 9 - 3. (Photo by Getty Images)

1970/1 was my first year at London University. I was at one of the out-of-town colleges, not far from what is now that monument to stationary traffic known as the M25. I threw myself into student life and played for the college first XV, but I also tried to attend as many top-flight club matches as possible. Far and away the most exciting team of the era was London Welsh, captained and coached by Dawes. They played some irresistible rugby, with established international stars like JPR Williams, Gerald Davies, John Taylor and Mervyn Davies in their ranks.

Dawes had captained Wales to a Five Nations Grand Slam, so it was no surprise to see the Lions tour party stacked with Welsh players. Thirteen made the pick, with London Welsh represented by the five already mentioned, plus lock Mike Roberts. Their contingent was to rise to seven, when Geoff Evans came out as a replacement, in mid-tour.

Back in those days, the traditional end--of-season jamboree came in the shape of the Middlesex Sevens. It was not to be missed and I arranged to meet up with a friend in Richmond, on the Saturday morning. As we began our walk down the A316, we saw a group of players practicing on the back pitch at Richmond Athletic Ground. When we got closer, we realised that this was a Lions training session. We immediately stopped and looked on for about half-an-hour. Apart from excitement, our main reaction was delight, mixed with some surprise, that the greats of the game cheated and skived in training, every bit as much as coarse rugby players like ourselves.

Down the road in Twickenham, London Welsh, despite the absence of their superstars, romped to another sevens title and we went to the pub and prepared for a summer of excitement from Down Under. The Lions flew out from Heathrow the following week. I was among a small group of fans seeing them off and managed to collect the autographs of nearly all the party.

The tour of New Zealand was prefaced by matches against Queensland and New South Wales, with the Brisbane game being played only a couple of days after they arrived there. Not surprisingly, the team was suffering from severe anti circadian dysrhythmia (jet lag) and the Australian province beat them by fifteen points to eleven. The result and performance prompted the Queensland coach Des Connor (a former Wallaby and All Black scrum half) to immediately dismiss the Lions as the worst team ever to be sent to New Zealand.

Two days after the Queensland game, a friend and I went camping in Henley-on-Thames. Before setting off on our Friday night crawl, we had sneakily pitched our tent on the edge of the local cricket field, just over the river from the town centre.

When we woke up on Saturday morning, I switched the radio on and was relieved to hear that the tourists had scraped a narrow win over New South Wales. We celebrated all day, having made an early departure from the cricket club to erect the tent in some woods outside the town, before visiting the pubs we hadn't reached on the previous night.

After the narrow victory in Sydney, the Lions moved on to the main course - New Zealand. Local supporters, who had viewed them as another flock of lambs to the slaughter, were soon changing their tune, as the tourists swept all before them in a run of ten victories before the First Test of a twenty-six-match tour!

They began with a 25-3 win over Counties-Thames Valley and followed it up with a 22-9 victory over King Country-Wanganui, who included the legendary Colin 'Pinetree' Meads. He suffered two broken ribs after only two minutes but had them strapped up and played for the whole game. Afterwards, he observed that the Lions pack was a unit to be taken seriously.

British Lions scrum half Gareth Edwards starts the movement which ended with loose forward Peter Dixon going over for a try, 20th August 1971. Wayne Cottrell of the All Blacks slows Edwards, with Alex Wyllie (rear) and Ian Kirkpatrick also racing in on the action. Lions flanker John Taylor backs up. (Photo by Central Press/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Waikato (35-14) and New Zealand Maoris (23-12) were then seen off, before a trip to Wellington to take on one of the country's strongest provinces. The hosts were swept away by a devastating display of attacking rugby. Welsh winger John Bevan scored four of the nine tries in a 47-9 rout. With today's scoring values, that would be 65-9! After the game, Wellington captain Graham Williams joined other experienced critics in hailing "The greatest Lions ever". From the worst to the greatest in just three-and-a-half weeks!

Back home, even non-rugby fans were beginning to take notice and televised highlights were being screened in midweek. I have to confess that my studies were not my first priority. Three more victories followed. 25-6 against South Canterbury-North Otago, 21-9 against Otago and 39-6 against West Coast-Buller - a game in which David Duckham ran in six tries.

Next up were Canterbury at Lancaster Park, the stadium which has since been devastated by the 2011 Christchurch earthquake. This was not a game of rugby. It was a battle and one of the most notorious games in Lions history, punctuated by violence which could never happen today. The photographs of prop Sandy Carmichael's battered face are still as chilling as they were at the time. Displaying great courage and no little skill, the Lions showed that brains can beat brawn and brutality and registered a magnificent 14-3 win. Victory, though, came at a cost. The nauseating attacks on Carmichael had ended his tour, while fellow prop Ray McLoughlin broke his thumb and was also ruled out of the rest of the tour, just a week before the First Test, in Dunedin.

The Lions licked their wounds and cruised to a comfortable 31-12 midweek win against another combined side, Marlborough-Nelson.

And so to the First Test, at Dunedin's 'House of Pain', Carisbrook - another famous old venue which has been consigned to history. This was the first chance to hear live radio commentary from New Zealand, albeit at the highly antisocial hour of 4 a.m.

In those days, radio broadcasts from the other side of the world left much to be desired. Commentary would often disappear in a cloud of static, but that did nothing to dampen my joy as the Lions registered a backs-to-the-wall 9-3 win. After the departure of the two first-choice props, Ian 'Mighty Mouse' McLauchlan and Sean Lynch had been named in the Test line-up and it was McLauchlan who scored the game's only try, as he charged down a clearance kick and dived on to the ball to score. The rest of the game was marked by Barry John's masterly tactical kicking, which ran All Black fullback Fergie McCormick ragged and controlled Lions defence in the face of sustained New Zealand pressure.

Later that day, a group of us went into the West End, to see a matinee of The Merchant of Venice, at the Old Vic. Being impecunious students, we had bought tickets up in the gods. The exertions of the previous two nights had left me so stiff and exhausted that I could barely walk and almost had to be carried up the stairs, much to the amusement of my unsympathetic mates. When I went to bed that night, I slept long and well. A Lions win and the Immortal Bard. What a day.

There were three games before the second Test, which would be played back at the scene of the battle against Canterbury. The Lions comfortably beat Southland 25-3, before holding out for a 14-9 win over Taranaki, who outscored them by two tries to one. The midweek game before the Test was against New Zealand Universities, back at Athletic Park, where Wellington had been put to the sword. It ended in a 27-6 Lions win and included a try which, to this day, remains one of the most remarkable I have ever seen.

The Lions won a scrum inside the Universities' 22, directly in front of the posts. Barry John received the ball and dummied a drop at goal. He then jinked to the left and weaved his way past a series of defenders to touch down between the posts. After a similar piece of wizardry in that year's Five Nations clash at Murrayfield, the great Scottish journalist Norman Mair wrote of 'King' John, "It is with relief to see Barry John enter a room by the doorway rather than materialise through the wall."

An old school-friend had asked me to sing in the choir at a family wedding in Staffordshire that weekend, so the early hours of Saturday, June the 26th found me lying on a camp-bed, earphone in place and tuning in on the little transistor radio. This time, it was an unhappy experience, as the Lions suffered what was to be their only defeat on New Zealand soil. The winning margin was 22-12, with the highlight being a spectacular try by New Zealand flanker Ian Kirkpatrick. The Lions produced two tries of their own, both scored by Gerald Davies. After the game Carwyn James famously told his team that he was more confident than ever that the Lions could go on to win the series.

Next up were Wairarapa-Bush and the Lions cruised to a 27-6 win. That was followed by an a tough encounter with Hawke's Bay. At one point, Barry John showed his contempt for the opposition's tactics by sitting on the ball, beckoning them to tackle him, then standing up and thumping the ball downfield. Four magnificent tries by Gerald Davies guided the Lions to a 25-6 win.

The next two games were again close-run affairs. In midweek, East Coast-Poverty Bay, captained by Kirkpatrick, were beaten 18-12, with Dawes landing a last-minute drop goal to clinch the victory. Three days later, it was the skipper's last-minute try which made the game safe, as Auckland were beaten 19-12.

With no midweek game ahead of the Third Test, the Lions headed off for some R & R in the Bay of Islands. While they were up there, I was also down at the seaside. I was singing with an opera group, who had a two-week run in Budleigh Salterton, in Devon. The final performance was on Friday, July the 30th. Not surprisingly, there was a lively end-of-tour party, so I was not in the best of shape when I crawled into my sleeping bag, shortly before the game in Wellington kicked off.

We were students, so it was basic accommodation, with the men billeted in the local scout hut and the ladies next door, in the guides hut. I showed extraordinary restraint, not to mention commendable consideration for my fellow hut-dwellers, as I somehow stopped myself from screaming with excitement as the Lions roared into a 13-0 lead after eighteen minutes. I can still see Gareth Edwards's hand-off on Bob Burgess, as the scrum-half's dynamic burst sent John in for a try. The Lions did not add to their score, but the All Blacks never looked like coming back and could only muster a consolation try to end up 13-3 losers. The result meant that the Lions could not lose the series. After the game, Colin Meads congratulated them on drawing the series, before saying that they were the best side to tour New Zealand in his time.

Three provincial games remained, before the crucial final Test. Manawatu-Horowhenua were beaten 39-6, with John Bevan scoring four of the Lions' eight tries. North Auckland, fielding three Going brothers - Sid, Brian and Ken - proved a tough nut to crack, in a game which ended 11-5 in favour of the tourists. Bevan scored the last of their three tries, to equal Tony O'Reilly's record tally of seventeen, in the 1959 tour.

The provincial clean sweep was completed with victory over Bay of Plenty, in another close-run contest. It ended 20-14 to the Lions, with a late drop goal by John making the game safe.

The weekend of the final Test, at Auckland's Eden Park, I made another visit to my pal in Staffordshire. No wedding involved, just the simple pleasures of eating and drinking well, and this time I was in a proper bed as I listened to the last eighty minutes of a historic tour.

It was a tight and nerve-wracking contest. At halftime it was level at eight-all. A penalty apiece in the second half made it 11-all, before JPR Williams landed a memorable long-range drop goal to put the Lions ahead. Another abiding image of the game was that of the Lions full-back turning to the main stand and saluting the rest of the squad. He had never dropped a goal in his life, but, on the way to the ground, had jokingly predicted that this would be the day. Another New Zealand penalty levelled things six minutes from time and the Lions held on for the draw which secured a series win. Before the tour, manager Doug Smith had predicted that the Lions would win the series 2-1, with one game drawn. Eat your heart out, Nostradamus.

DUNEDIN, NEW ZEALAND - JUNE 26: General action during the First Test match between New Zealand and the British Lions at Carisbrook on June 26, 1971 in Dunedin, New Zealand. The British Lions won the match 9 - 3. (Photo by Getty Images)

History had been made and rugby was making the headlines, back in the British Isles. When the team returned in triumph, a huge crowd was waiting to welcome them at Heathrow. Years later, Gerald Davies recalled their reception. "The reaction when we came back was as if we were the Beatles. Heathrow was so crowded there was no room to move. It brought home how phenomenal an achievement it was, but I am not sure we would have succeeded without Carwyn as coach. Thanks to him, we were true to our talent."

About the Author - Barney Burnham has been a Tour Guide at Twickenham Stadium since 2005. A Wasps supporter for over 25 years, he has been the club's official match reporter for 12 seasons, has a regular column in their matchday programme, and co-wrote '150 Years of Wasps'.