Injuries & hope: The ’77 Lions tour

Measured purely by results the 1977 British & Irish Lions were among the most successful visitors to New Zealand, winning one Test out of four and coming within minutes of sharing the series.

But it certainly was not seen that way at the time. Few if any Lions teams have been quite such a disappointment. Context, as ever, was all. Levels of expectation were defined by their immediate predecessors — the teams of 1971, which won in New Zealand, and 1974, which stormed undefeated through South Africa.

As team member Ian McGeechan said: “We had to carry a mantle that they did not. We had to come back and try to achieve something for a second time.”

Nor was it exactly a vintage period for the All Blacks, with the golden age of the 1960s giving way to a distinctly vincible 1970s — defeats by the Boks in 1970 and 1976, the Lions in 1971, away to France in 1973 and 1977 and even at home to an England team coming off a miserable Five Nations in 1972.

They could still usually beat Australia, but this was not the achievement it would become from the mid-1980s onwards.

The Lions reflected an era of Welsh domination. Wales had not lost to any of the other home nations since 1975, and would not do until 1980. The three years since the Lions went to South Africa had seen Wales take, in sequence, the championship, a Grand Slam and a Triple Crown.

So John Dawes — coach of Wales since 1974, and already a celebrated Lions captain — was a shoo-in as coach. His self-confidence at this stage in his career was such that his All Black counterpart Jack Gleeson was to recall being rendered almost speechless at their first meeting.

British & Irish Lions captain Phil Bennett kicks for touch in victory over Wellington in 1977. Central Press/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Similarly Wales’ Phil Bennett was the logical captain. He had played brilliantly at outside-half for the 1974 Lions, led Llanelli to three consecutive Welsh Cups — then the de facto national championship — and the Welsh Triple Crown in 1977 had given him an edge over England’s Roger Uttley and Scotland’s McGeechan, the other captains in the initial touring squad.

Bennett also stood out from the usual run of Lions leaders. While national fortunes ebbed and flowed over the previous 70 years, there was rarely any doubt that the strongest club rugby was played in South Wales. But this was not reflected in the selection of Lions captains.

Both previous Welsh captains, Harding and Dawes, had been London Welsh players, making Bennett the first [and last until Sam Warburton] to be playing his rugby in Wales. Until recently a steelworker, he contrasted sharply with the succession of lawyers, doctors and army officers who had led the Lions.

But it can be argued that the misfortunes of what even team members came to know as the “bad news tour” had begun back in April 1976 when Mervyn Davies, seen as a near certainty to lead the Lions, had his career – and very nearly his life – ended by a stroke during a Welsh Cup semifinal.

Bennett initially intended not to go to New Zealand and admitted in his memoirs: “I should never have accepted the captaincy of the British Lions tour to New Zealand.” It was a tour during which, he wrote, “all of my weaknesses as a player and tourist were exposed”.

It was a matter of temperament rather than social class. He was never an enthusiastic traveller — missing his family to the extent that he wrote more than 200 postcards during the trip — lacked the outgoing personal confidence which is needed to bring a diverse touring team together over a short period and was one to worry about his own form.

Five veterans of 1971, all certain choices, declined the trip — English back rower Peter Dixon, Irish flanker Fergus Slattery and three Welsh legends in fullback JPR Williams, wing Gerald Davies and scrum-half Gareth Edwards.

Two more serious Test candidates were ruled out before the tour started — Uttley was unable to recover from a shoulder injury and Welsh lock Geoff Wheel failed medical tests. Yet there were still 16 Welsh players, the highest representation of any country since England in 1930, in the 30-man party.

British & Irish Lions’ Moss Keane lashes out at a New Zealand Universities player in 1977. Adrian Murrell/Getty Images

Dawes later denied national bias in his selections and that the reaction put him off making Pontypool captain Terry Cobner vice-captain with responsibility for the forwards. Criticism of selection was not the last hostility the tourists would face.

Anger at their own team’s recent failures made New Zealand fans more aggressively partisan than usual while the local climate delivered an unusually miserable winter with incessant rain.

Hooker Peter Wheeler has ever since entertained after-dinner audiences with memories of weeks where it “rained twice, once for three days and the other for four”. And partisan local press coverage extended off-field and culminated in the “Lousy Lovers” headlines of New Zealand Truth, a lubricious tabloid which expired unmourned in 2013.

The unflattering testimony of a groupie who claimed to have bedded four Lions promoted a flood of anxious — and in those days highly expensive — phone calls between players and families at home.

Relations were also poor with the travelling British press. Sunday Times writer John Hopkins, whose unusually thoughtful tour account ranged well beyond match reports, described the “protective paranoia” of Dawes, frequently embroiled in verbal disputes with travelling writers, and manager Dod Burrell.

A warning that all might not go well came in the ninth match against New Zealand Universities. Marshalled by fullback Doug Rollerson, a future All Black, the Universities pressurised the tourists into endless errors. The Universities 21-9 win, emulating their defeat of the 1956 Springboks, was the Lions’ first loss in 39 matches.

The furious Dawes subjected his squad to a vicious, drawn-out, long remembered “beasting” at their next training session. That it came immediately before the first Test at Wellington, at a predictably wet and windy Athletic Park, was no help. Yet the Lions could, and probably should, have won.

They were struck two first-half blows. A typically opportunistic early try by rugged All Black scrum-half Sid Going was followed by a highly dubious one from prop Brad Johnstone — later to coach Fiji and Italy — awarded after the referee had initially appeared to signal an All Black knock-on.

“We out-scrummaged, out-jumped, out-everythinged them, yet we lost the game.”

Dod Burrell

Yet the Lions led 12-10 from four penalties by Bennett [three] and brilliant Scottish fullback Andy Irvine in the final stages. They then worked an overlap which seemed to promise a certain try, but Welsh flanker Trevor Evans saw Grant Batty, a combative veteran wing wearing a knee brace, intercept his pass to charge 60 metres for the try.

This “12-point try”, with a likely Lions lead of 18-10 transformed in seconds into an All Black advantage of 16-12, was how it ended. The three weeks before the second Test saw a transformation.

Until then, Dawes — in his playing days a centre — had supervised the forwards in training while Bennett looked after the backs. Wheeler recalled that following the first Test “several of the forwards got together in the bar one evening to discuss what was going wrong with the tour”.

The upshot was that Cobner was put in charge of the forwards, co-opted onto the tour committee and became, as Bennett recognised “the unofficial skipper of the side”.

There were five changes to the pack for the second Test including the first appearance as a unit by perhaps the finest of all Lions front rows — Wheeler propped by English giant Fran Cotton and Pontypool legend Graham Price.

Bennett was victimised by vicious late tackles in a brutal second Test at Christchurch, but the Lions forward dominance enabled them to level the series, a Scarlet-tinted victory built on an early 10-0 lead with a try from wing JJ Williams and two Bennett penalties, then holding on for a 13-9 victory.

The Lions went into the third Test at Dunedin supremely confident. Historically accustomed to seeing attacking superiority negated by All Black forward power, how could they now lose when their forwards were so superior?

But Gleeson reacted smartly, strengthening his attacking options by dumping Going for quick-passing veteran Lyn Davis and giving ultra-quick flanker Graeme Mourie his debut.

British & Irish Lions JJ Williams dives past New Zealand’s Grant Batty to score the only try of the second Test in 1977. Adrian Murrell/Getty Images

Majestic veteran flanker Ian Kirkpatrick went over for his 16th try in Tests — then the all-time All Black record — in the first minute. The Lions went from bad to worse and Bennett, who had a miserable afternoon, pinpointed this as the match where he and the Lions most missed Gareth Edwards’ genius at scrum-half.

John Hopkins recorded: “The traditional roles of New Zealand and British rugby had been reversed. The forward giants at Carisbrook were the men in red and the darting, elusive backs who could exist on less than an equal supply of ball were those of New Zealand.”

Bennett and Irish centre David Irwin compounded their problems by missing six kicks at goal, while new All Black fullback Bevan Wilson claimed 15 points in a 19-7 victory.

Cobner and No. 8 Derek Quinnell were injured before the final test, but the Lions forwards still dominated. And they went into the final minutes with a tied series in their grasp — a try, conversion and penalty from Scotland scrum-half Doug Morgan giving them a 9-6 lead.

Injury time was ticking away when Bennett kicked for touch and missed. All Black centre Bill Osborne’s kick into Lions territory was pursued ferociously. Welsh centre Steve Fenwick caught the ball and, under pressure, passed to Wheeler, who was enveloped by the pursuing All Blacks.

The ball spun free and was picked off by All Black flanker Lawrie Knight, who crossed in the corner to give the hosts a 10-9 win and with it the series.

Lions manager Dod Burrell could not believe it: “We out-scrummaged, out-jumped, out-everythinged them, yet we lost the game.”

Dawes, of whom the victorious Gleeson — who died the following year from cancer — said tellingly that “perhaps John hasn’t lost enough”, reckoned the All Blacks had been “out-thought, out-fought and outplayed”.

Wheeler pointed out that there was nothing lucky about the determination of their pursuit of Osborne’s kick ahead and that “in pressure situations they seem to control the ball much better than British players, and in speed of thought and reaction they are just that shade ahead.

“There was little chance of Knight knocking on that ball that bounced up around his knees — New Zealanders have been taking advantage of that kind of situation for years.”

It was, it seems, ever thus. And never more so than in 1977. Other Lions parties — 1966, 1983 and 2005 come to mind — have been defeated far more resoundingly.

But this was a disappointment in the spirit of John Cleese’s screen headmaster, lamenting that “I can stand the despair, it’s the hope that’s intolerable”.

This Lions team had reason to hope right up to the last minute of their rain-drenched tour. The dashing of that hope left them perhaps the most devastated of all the Lions parties who have lost in New Zealand.

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