‘Attacking, silly rugby’ that won Kiwi hearts

No British & Irish Lions party can have departed with less reason to hope, but few have returned to greater acclaim than Ronnie Dawson’s 1959 team.

They did not win the Test series, but could claim to have got closer to beating New Zealand than any of their predecessors, and had more reason than any of the other teams beaten there to believe that their defeat was rooted in more than simple All Black superiority.


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Like their immediate predecessors of 1950 and 1955, they were a flash of light against a decade of dour, defensive rugby. The grim trends of that decade peaked in the Five Nations tournament immediately before their departure, with the four home unions combining to score 65 points — an average of just over four per team per match — and only eight tries. Nor, for the first time ever, could any of the party claim to be reigning champions, since France had taken their first outright title.

Yet, this team was to score more tries and points — their nine touch downs remain a record for a Lions team in a series against New Zealand — in four matches against the All Blacks than they had contrived in 16 against each other and France. They attracted massive crowds. More than 800,000 people saw their 25 matches in New Zealand, equivalent to one in three of the population.

In discussing the team’s philosophy its captain Dawson drew the distinction between “attacking rugby, which…has been our policy, and silly rugby.” Thoughtful and articulate, the Wanderers hooker was the fourth consecutive Irish captain and an entirely logical choice for a party including nine players each from Wales and Ireland, seven Englishmen and five Scots.

England captain Jeff Butterfield, who made the party, had played brilliantly for the 1955 Lions in South Africa. Loughborough-trained, he was seen as a tactical innovator and took charge of the pre-tour training sessions at Eastbourne. Yet England scored only nine points, and not a single try, in the 1959 Five Nations.

Scotland captain Jim Greenwood’s career had been ended by injury in mid-season, Wales’s Clem Thomas retired after the Five Nations and the brilliant Cliff Morgan — sounded out about both the tour and leadership more than a year before by the hugely influential Wavell Wakefield — had quit at the end of the 1958 season.

Dawson’s sole drawback was that he may not have been the best hooker in the party. His deputy was Bryn Meredith, who played every Test in the Lions tours on either side of this one, to South Africa in 1955 and 1962, may well have been the best hooker in Welsh history and was, at 27, near the height of his considerable powers.

Like the other two Irish hookers to have led postwar Lions teams to New Zealand — Karl Mullen in 1950 and Ciaran Fitzgerald in 1983 — Dawson had his position questioned. New Zealand writer Terry McLean recalled that “The large Welsh contingent, as in 1950, intrigued against the captain.”

But Dawson was a better player than Fitzgerald and, unlike Mullen, would retain his place for all four Tests. The New Zealand broadcaster Winston McCarthy argued that “Meredith was, perhaps a better and more rugged hooker than Dawson, but Dawson’s control of his team was worth a tight head or two.”

1959 Lions captain Ronnie Dawson, left, leads his team out alongside All Blacks counterpart, Wilson Whineray. Central Press/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

While a new Lion himself, Dawson could count on the support of several players who had excelled in South Africa in 1955 — Meredith, Welsh lock Rhys Williams, Butterfield, England scrum-half Dickie Jeeps and charismatic Irish wing and business giant-to-be Tony O’Reilly. Versatile Welsh midfield back Malcolm Thomas, a survivor from 1950, became the first player in the era of properly representative Lions teams to make two trips to New Zealand.

In spite of the low-scoring championship from which they were chosen, the Lions could field what the long-memoried McLean would reckon many years later to be as good a back division as any that ever visited New Zealand.

Both fullbacks, the elegant Welshman Terry Davies and sublime Scottish attacker Ken Scotland, would be chosen among the New Zealand Rugby Almanac’s five players of the year. So would outside-half Bev Risman, English son of a Welsh rugby league immortal, while the two wings — O’Reilly and England’s elusive, ghosting Peter Jackson, will not have been far behind. Injuries limited Butterfield’s effectiveness, but David Hewitt, latest in a remarkable Irish dynasty, supplied lethal pace at centre while the entire unit was serviced by the tough, durable, tactically astute Jeeps.

They began their 33-match marathon, also taking in Australia and Canada, brightly. There was an early defeat by New South Wales, but Australia were resoundingly beaten in both Tests. They underwent the mullering by Otago which was at this time a mandatory element of Lions tours, but their early form in New Zealand drew a ground-record 41,500 to Carisbrooke in Dunedin for the first Test.

The All Blacks, led by Wilson Whineray, had enough forward talent to be able to exclude Colin Meads — not admittedly yet quite the irresistible force he was to become. But they were no match, in attacking terms at least, for the brilliance of the Lions backs, who ran in four tries — to this day their record against New Zealand — two from Welsh centre Malcolm Price and one each for wings Jackson and O’Reilly.

The All Blacks were overrun, while failing to cross the Lions line themselves. Yet they still won 18-17, with six penalties from the boot of giant full-back Don Clarke. Three, including one reckoned by Lions touch judge Mick English to have drifted wide of the post, were kicked in the last 10 minutes as they hit back from trailing 9-17. Many international matches have been won by the team scoring fewer tries, but this is comfortably the most extreme case.

Many New Zealanders were embarrassed. There were chants of ‘Red, Red, Red’ in place of the more usual ‘Black, Black, Black’ from the Carisbrooke crowd. The New Zealand Herald headlined ‘New Zealand rugby’s Saddest Victory’, while McLean reckoned that “if it were possible, New Zealand would like to rub this match out of the record.”

The 1959 Lions squad prior to their departure to Australia and New Zealand. Central Press/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

One reason for this was, as McCarthy wrote, that ‘It brought back bitter memories of the first test in South Africa in 1949′. Then the All Blacks had been on the receiving end as Springbok prop Okey Geffin landed five penalties — the previous record for a single international — in the Boks’ 15-11 win. That the superior attacking play of the All Blacks was negated by home town refereeing throughout an entire series lost 4-0 remained, only a decade later, an article of faith in New Zealand rugby.  

Considering referee Alan Fleury’s performance, Welsh journalist JBG Thomas wrote that New Zealand referees were “not biased, but neither are they competent.” Risman would recall 50 years later that “At the time we were very angry. Everybody felt we’d been very badly done by. The discrepancy in the penalty count was way out of proportion.”

For the rest of the tour the team jokers, O’Reilly and reserve scrum-half Andrew Mulligan, satirised New Zealand Rugby Union president Gordon Brown’s after-dinner statement that the match had been “won within the framework of the rules” for which “no apology need be offered”.

It was at the same time a remarkable effort by Clarke, typifying the effect described by Whineray, that “On the field he was like a huge energy force behind you. Even when he missed a kick, it could have a devastating effect upon the opposition. He could kick them from his own 10-yard line.”

That impact was to be underlined in the second Test at Wellington. Meads was recalled, while back rowers Kel Tremain and Red Conway and wing Ralph Caulton began significant All Black careers. The Lions had lost to Canterbury the week before and were missing Risman, Scotland, Hewitt and Jackson, all injured. Price, usually a centre, had been pressed into service as an emergency outside-half.

Caulton had crossed for two tries, yet the Lions led 8-6 into the final minute when Clarke, coming into the line with the force of a 6-foot-2, 240-pounds man — big in 1959 for a forward, never mind a back — crossed halfway out and then landed the conversion to give the All Blacks an 11-8 win.

The Lions, who might easily have been 2-0 up with two to play, were instead on the short end of that scoreline. It hardly helped that, as McLean pointed out, the winning score was only possible because referee Roy Gillies had wrongly called a knock-on against Lions fullback Terry Davies.

Bev Risman scores a try for the Lions in the final Test of the 1959 tour. Central Press/Getty Images

So it is perhaps no surprise that the third Test was an All Black romp. Conway — later to enter All Black legend by having an injured finger amputated rather than miss a tour of South Africa — persecuted Phil Horrocks-Taylor, floundering at outside-half only a few days after joining the tour, and Caulton crossed twice more in their 22-8 win.

It made the final Test a dead rubber. But where some touring teams have folded under these circumstances, the 1959 Lions produced their very best, scoring three brilliant tries to nil through O’Reilly [on the day when he and Rhys Williams became the first men to play 10 Lions Tests], Jackson and Risman. In keeping with the rest of the series, they failed to convert any of them, but held on for a 9-6 win when Clarke, to the genuine pleasure of most of the Eden Park crowd, failed to land a penalty he would normally have converted.

The Jackson and Risman tries were among the finest ever scored by the Lions. Jackson beat one potential tackler then, as McCarthy recalled, with Tremain, Clarke and centre Terry Lineen converging on him “with one of those remarkable feats of footwork, he stopped them momentarily, then dived across in the corner.” Risman, throwing the All Black defence by running towards the blind side, took a pass from Mulligan, playing at scrum-half because Jeeps was injured, and scored after a swerving 40-metre run past two tacklers.

It was the Lions’ first win over New Zealand in 29 years, only their second of all-time and remains to this day among their finest performances, showcasing the full capabilities of one of the best of the 11 teams who have gone there.

Yet still they lost the series 3-1. One evident difference was in goal-kicking. Clarke scored 39 points in the series and by the end of it was, after only 10 Tests, the all-time record points scorer in matches between established rugby nations. He was to reach 200 points, finishing in 1964 on 207, before anyone else had managed 100. The Lions had plenty of kickers — Hewitt, Risman, Davies, Welsh back row John Faull and Scotland were all used during the series — but none was remotely as reliable.

Refereeing was certainly, whether it is a matter of interpretation, ineptitude or outright bias, a factor. Yet even sympathetic New Zealand observers like McLean and McCarthy felt the Lions were, whatever the other issues, much too careless in conceding penalties.

The Lions’ use of five different kickers reflected not only their struggle to find someone reliable, but ill-luck with injuries. They made a total of 23 team-changes during the four match series, a significant proportion because of injuries. Two in particular harmed them. McLean reckoned that the loss of Irish lock Bill Mulcahy after the first Test and Risman for the second and third determined the outcome of the series.

Dawson, while readily conceding that his team had been outplayed in the third test, told JBG Thomas that “In all rugby, the ability of a team, plus a large portion of the bounce of the ball, leads to success or failure. We lost the first two Tests because of the fortunes of rugby in New Zealand, the bounce of the ball, or luck.”

Unlucky or not, the Lions’ losing run in New Zealand went on.

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‘Attacking, silly rugby’ that won Kiwi hearts

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