The modernised Lions who revitalised New Zealand rugby

The team of 1950 were the first modern Lions, recognisable except in the matter of playing 30 matches to the eyes of 2017.

They adopted the red shirts which are now as synonymous with them as gold is with Australian rugby and Brazilian football, also late adopters. And they were much more representative than their predecessors of the strength of British and Irish rugby.

They were the first Lions to tour after the war, and the first to visit New Zealand since 1930. And just as the 1945-6 New Zealand Forces ‘Kiwis’ touring team had played their postwar matches in Britain, Ireland, France and Germany with the fearless élan of men just released from much greater perils than losing a rugby match, so the 1950 Lions defined an attacking style.

The 1950s was anything but an era of attacking rugby. It culminated in the average number of points in Five Nations matches dropping into single figures. But the decade’s three Lions teams offered a dashing counterpoint to prevailing conservatism.

(Photo by S&G/PA Images via Getty Images)

New Zealand commentator Winston McCarthy reckoned the 1950 team was ‘a breath of fresh air’ for a nation still reeling from the crushing of the previous year’s All Blacks by South Africa’s power game and dominated domestically by the fearsome rucking of Vic Cavanagh’s Otago.

“It is doubtful if any side has done as much for a country’s rugby as the British Isles did for New Zealand”, was the verdict of the authoritative Rugby Almanack of New Zealand, which nominated two Lions — Irish outside-half Jack Kyle and Welsh wing Ken Jones — among its five players of the year.

This was a team which visibly enjoyed itself, and gave enjoyment, on and off the field. The last Lions squad to travel by boat, they used the month-long outward journey via Panama to bond as a group and, led by their 13 Welsh representatives, become a more than passable male-voice choir, the Singing Lions of an evocative DVD of tour memories made in 2005. “It was astonishing how much pleasure they got, and how much they gave, by singing”, recalled All Black full-back Bob Scott. Other nationalities learnt Welsh standards like Sospan Fach phonetically, as well as contributing their own tunes and talents such as the saxophone-playing of Canadian-born Scottish prop Grahame Budge.

Choirmaster was the singular Cliff Davies, a prop fast enough to have rounded off an 80-metre counter-attack with his own 20-metre dash to the line at Twickenham earlier that year. A miner from Kenfig Hill, he struck up an outwardly unlikely shipboard friendship with Bill Jordan, since 1935 New Zealand High Commissioner in London and a former president of the League of Nations assembly.

From the remarkable range of acquaintance associated with those roles, Jordan reckoned Davies ‘the most extraordinary man he had ever met’, not least for his knowledge of current affairs.

The preponderance of Welshmen reflected a resounding Grand Slam that year, and might have been greater. Captain John Gwilliam might also have led the Lions but could not get time off from his teaching job while flanker Ray Cale was reportedly deemed ‘too rough’, the unlikeliest reason anyone has ever been denied a rugby trip to New Zealand.

In Gwilliam’s absence, the captaincy fell to Karl Mullen, the medic who had led Ireland to their Grand Slam of 1948 and championship in 1949 and — still only 23 — had in McCarthy’s words ‘charm and tact unbelievable in one so young’. The only doubt, anticipating a recurrent theme for Irish hooker-skippers on postwar Lions tours, was whether he was the best player in his position.

Mullen was one of nine Irishmen, along with five Scots and only three from England, whose hopefuls were handicapped by both that year’s wooden spoon and the scattershot inconsistency of their selectors. One of the three, Waterloo scrum-half Gordon Rimmer, was first-choice at the start of five seasons between 1949 and 1954 — every time against Wales — but accumulated only nine caps in all.

Mullen’s Ireland and Gwilliam’s Wales had been regarded as conservative, forward-dominated teams. Each though, had brilliance in its backs. Linking Kyle with Jones, Cardiff centres Bleddyn Williams and Jack Matthews, versatile Malcolm Thomas and, once he had arrived as a replacement for injured Irish full-back George Norton, Llanelli’s teenage prodigy Lewis Jones enabled the Lions to fulfil the promise of ‘good open football’ made on arrival by Ginger Osborne, a highly popular and efficient manager.

Yet few Lions teams have arrived at the First Test with less expected of them. They suffered two shattering defeats, losing 23-9 to Otago and 11-0 to Southland, in the week before meeting the All Blacks at Dunedin.

Welsh forward Rees Stephens forever after reckoned Otago the best team, international XVs included, he had played against. Bleddyn Williams remembered that “Otago’s pack dominated the game, completely whipping our forwards and offering us no attacking opportunities behind a frayed and battered scrum.”

“”New Zealand were better tactically, and had been thinking about it beforehand…..there was a certain ruthlessness about them, and we were not ruthless enough.””

Lions prop John Robins

The loss to Southland, tough but not in the same class as Otago, was in its own way more worrying, and may have lulled the All Blacks into complacency. Scott recalled that some All Blacks went into the first Test with ‘that most dangerous attitude, a superiority complex’ and talked of winning by 30 points.

Instead they were happy to salvage a 9-9 draw from a match of 116 line-outs when skipper Ron Elvidge forced his way over for a late try, in those days worth three points. The Lions pack ‘smashed into the heavier All Black forwards with reckless ferocity’ according to Williams, a spectator due to injury, and Kyle played brilliantly.

Scott wrote of Kyle that while ‘the people who looked for the obvious were disappointed in him, those who looked at his contribution to the team, to his footballing instincts, were amazed by his abilities’. This was a day when his genius was evident to the least perceptive spectator. He first scored a solo try he later reckoned ‘the most valuable of his life’ then kicked to the corner for Jones to score.

The Lions forwards were not to play as well again and were dominated in the second Test in Christchurch, clearest-cut of the four. In an era of back row destroyers Williams reckoned he had ‘never seen a more merciless and destructive scrum-half killer’ than Pat Crowley, who cut off attacks at origin by harassing scrum-half Gus Black, a Scot who in 2005 recalled ‘spending more time on the air than on the ground’. Crowley also scored a try as New Zealand won 8-0.

Tom Clifford and Karl Mullen pose before embarking on their tour of the Antipodes (Photo by S&G/PA Images via Getty Images)

The last two matches have entered legend. In the third Test at Wellington, the All Blacks lost both prop Johnny Simpson and second-five Elvidge, reducing their pack to six men even when Elvidge returned as an auxiliary full-back — in Scott’s words ‘not knowing where he was or why’ — with his head bleeding and his arm hanging uselessly. The six battled magnificently. Crowley and lock Lester Harvey played the game of their lives and Elvidge, who never played again, showed extraordinary courage to dive through full-back Billy Cleaver’s tackle for the decisive try in New Zealand’s 6-3 win.

As Bleddyn Williams asked ‘Even when reduced to six men, the New Zealand pack were winning the ball against our eight. What can anyone do against forwards like that?’ It was a fair question and, since Williams was captaining the Lions, a pertinent one.

The single asterisk against the unified happiness of this tour is Terry McLean’s suggestion that the Welsh contingent pressed relentlessly for Dai Davies to play in the last two Tests instead of Mullen, who in a 2005 DVD admitted to inventing an injury, adding ‘I wouldn’t do it again’.

McLean indicted Williams, an apostle of open rugby, for failing to stretch the depleted All Blacks. It was perhaps symptomatic of the lack of self-confidence at the very highest levels which Scott diagnosed in the brilliant Welsh centre.

Some Lions teams have disintegrated once the series was lost. This one did not. Scott recalled being asked about the final Test for years afterwards, and that every one of his questioners felt “passionately that this test represented the kind of rugby he dreamed about in boyhood, wanted to play when he was a man, and lingeringly thinks about now in moments of reverie when he is recalling his fondest memories of sport.”

Its brilliance reached a crescendo which led McCarthy, a veteran observer, to write that he had “never seen anything to compare with the last 15 or 16 minutes”. The All Blacks led 11-3 through tries by prop Hec Wilson and wing Peter Henderson plus five points including a magnificent drop-goal from Scott, when Lewis Jones dummied his way out of his own 25, surged into midfield and found Ken Jones with a superbly timed and angled pass.

New Zealand perform their haka (Photo by S&G/PA Images via Getty Images)

Ken, an Olympic 100m relay medallist who missed the Empire Games to go on the tour, was much more than a sprinter in boots. McCarthy reckoned he had ‘absolutely everything. He could run, he could handle, he could kick, he could tackle and had a great rugby head’. He set off for the All Black line with their entire back division in pursuit, just escaped an ankle-tap by centre Roy Roper and touched down under the posts for what Scott – one of his pursuers – would call “the most staggering, glorious, thrilling, incredible, wonderful try I had ever seen in international rugby”.

Lewis Jones’s conversion set off a spectacular finale in which Lions lock Roy John — a line-out magician rated by Scott as this Lions team’s third genius — wrongfooted the All Black pack with a glorious dummy before rampaging downfield. Williams was twice thwarted at the line, seeking a try which would at least have drawn the match and, converted, would have won it. The series already won, there were numerous New Zealanders willing them on, while 40,000 would turn up in Wellington the following Wednesday for the tour finale against the Maoris.

But the All Blacks, true to type, held on for their third victory. As Welsh prop John Robins reflected in 2005, “New Zealand were better tactically, and had been thinking about it beforehand…..there was a certain ruthlessness about them, and we were not ruthless enough.”

Bleddyn Williams was among those who returned home convinced that the British game should adopt coaching although, as Robins would find on returning as the Lions first coach 16 years later, New Zealand superiority had more dimensions than that.

The Scottish forward Peter Kininmonth remembered that “we didn’t get the ball in the loose scrums and not enough from the scrummages”. Add in All Black ruthlessness, and the Lions lack of it in the first and in particular third Tests, and that was enough to turn an intrinsically tight series into a 3-0 home win.

The Lions returned home via Suez, completing a round-the-world voyage, on the way sweeping a two match series against Australia and beating a Ceylon team composed largely of the island’s British garrison 44-6 in Colombo. They undoubtedly minded that they had not found a way to win — more than 50 years on Robins still blamed himself for missing a penalty in the drawn first Test — but the memories they both left and took away with them were as happy as any associated with Lions teams in New Zealand.

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