1971: Lions that stand alone in history

“Nineteen seventy one was the year when British rugby came of age”. So wrote John Reason and Carwyn James in their 1979 history of the game “The World of Rugby”. To Colin Meads, it was the year when “you stopped believing in fairy tales”. All three were there for that year’s Lions tour of New Zealand — Meads leading the All Blacks, James coaching the tourists and Reason reporting.

The team of 1971 stands out from the other 11 which have visited New Zealand by virtue of one fact — they won. Their victory, by two Tests to one with one drawn, was famously predicted by tour manager Doug Smith.


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It can be argued that they were lucky in their timing. The All Blacks were very different from the settled, tested team of the late 1960s. Only the 35-year-old Meads — still a formidable presence, but inevitably past his very best, remained. None of the All Black pack was a poor player. Peter Whiting and Tane Norton, newcomers at lock and hooker, would be very good. But only flanker Ian Kirkpatrick was a proven world-class player in his prime.

Scrum-half Sid Going, a fine nine-man exponent, and first five Bob Burgess, a flamboyant creator, were both individually top-class but a poor combination. Bryan Williams, a great wing, was played at centre and fullback Fergie McCormick lasted only one Test. There was also tactical confusion, with the expansive inheritance of Fred Allen competing against the sergeant-majorly hard-grinding norm represented by new coach Ivan Vodanovich.

But the Lions still had to overcome the psychological handicap of nearly 70 years of defeats, the challenges of touring and the eternal conundrum of melding the best players of four nations into a single, united, cohesive unit. They did it by getting a huge amount right. For the first time, the Lions would out-think the All Blacks. One Lions official may have told Reason that he did not believe “all of this bloody nonsense about coaching”, but the appointment of James was vital.

James, a native Welsh speaker capped twice in the 1950s, brought an extraordinarily acute intellectual and emotional intelligence to a role still in its infancy. He argued: “Coaching means organisation, and the more highly organised you are as a team, the more flexible you are. It’s my job to ‘resolve the complexities into simplicities.” Outside-half Barry John, like James from Cefneithen in West Wales, had no enthusiasm for discussing rugby technicalities, but recalled: “He made me think, just as he made all of us think.”

All of this was devoted to winning. He said: “The All Blacks and the Springboks believe they can win, the Lions only hope they can. This attitude must change if we are to triumph.” He was also pragmatic about the game’s inherent physicality, telling the Lions to “get your retaliation in first.” James formed a highly effective partnership with manager Smith, a doctor and 1950 Lion who anticipated his successors of 2017 by talking about jet lag, but using its medical name ‘circadian dysrythmia’.

The tour party reflected the balance of power in British and Irish rugby. Wales’ 1971 Grand Slam was reflected in the selection of 13 players including captain John Dawes, a selfless enabler of others at centre whose leadership had already transformed London Welsh. But as Clem Thomas was to write, the party enabled giants like half-backs Gareth Edwards and Barry John, fullback JPR Williams and wing Gerald Davies to “extend their skills with a transfusion of powerful Scots, English and Irish forwards.” And not only forwards — English wing David Duckham and Irish centre Mike Gibson would also play immense roles.

Welsh Lions had been accused of clannishness on previous tours, so some felt that so strong a presence including a Welsh captain and a Welsh-speaking avowed Welsh Nationalist — James had been Plaid Cymru’s parliamentary candidate for Llanelli — as coach hardly boded well.

But All Black skipper Meads was to write that “for the first time in my experience, the Lions were able to weld nationality.” At the pre-tour camp in Eastbourne, James told his players :”I don’t want Irishmen to pretend to be English, or Englishmen to be Celts ,or Scotsmen to be anything less than Scots.”

J.P.R Williams of the British Lions takes on New Zealand’s Ian Kirkpatrick during a test match on the British Lions Tour to New Zealand in 1971. (Photo Getty Images)

Recent accounts have shown that there were tensions, with 2017 Lions manager John Spencer and Scottish prop Ian McLauchlan among the critics. But skipper Dawes reckoned that “When we left Eastbourne, we were a united party.”

A formidable group of senior players included veterans of the miseries of 1966. It was, James and Reason recalled “Impossible to overestimate the contribution made by Ray McLoughlin to the forward effort,” the Irish prop acting as de facto forwards coach, relentlessly drilling skills. Gibson, aside from talents which made him to Meads “as near to a perfect player as I have seen in any position,” also had complete recall of any match he had played. With video analysis still the stuff of science fiction, the value of this is similarly hard to overstate.

Yet they did not begin well. Starting with two warm-up matches in Australia, they went down 15-11 to Queensland, not remotely the power they have since become. Their coach Des Connor said the tourists were “the worst Lions I have seen.” Beating New South Wales 14-12 was an improvement, but hardly struck fear into New Zealanders.

Attitudes changed by the time they played the All Blacks in the first test at Dunedin. Ten consecutive victories will do that. They beat traditional scourge Otago 21-9, but two other matches really stood out.

First was the 47-9, nine-try massacre of a highly-regarded Wellington team, epitomising what Clem Thomas wrote of as reaffirming “the fundamental ethos that rugby is an attacking game best enjoyed by 15 players running and handling at risk.”

Then, the week before the first Test, came a savage clash with Canterbury which ruled both first-choice props — McLoughlin and the Scot Sandy Carmichael — out of the tour. British critics were not alone in condemning Canterbury — New Zealand doyen Terry McLean writing: “All Black rugby has become as grotesque as a wounded bull.”

The Lions won 14-3 but losing their top props would have derailed most previous touring parties. As Thomas wrote: “It seemed inconceivable that a British pack would be able to stand up to the familiar juggernauting of a full strength All Black pack.”

McLauchlan, nicknamed ‘Mighty Mouse’ for his 5-foot-9 stature and Irishman Sean Lynch stepped up as the Test props, either side of English hooker John Pullin. Irish veteran Willie John McBride, ‘senior pro’ in succession to McLoughlin, packed down in the second row alongside Welsh lineout specialist Delme Thomas while England’s Peter Dixon formed the back row along with London Welshmen Mervyn Davies and John Taylor. The Lions did spend much of the first Test under pressure, but still won 9-3. McLauchlan charged down an All Black kick for a first-half try, and John kicked two second-half penalties.

Victory was built on what Thomas reckoned was ‘courageous defence that was beyond belief’ and a remarkable display of tactical kicking by John, making McCormick — who had made few friends during the Canterbury match — look lumberingly inept with a succession of touch-finders which rolled just out of his reach.

McCormick was dropped, ending his All Black career and depriving the hosts of by far their most reliable goal-kicker. With John, previously a part-time place-kicker, setting scoring records with his still novel instep-kicking, a traditional area of All Black superiority was reversed. With John Pring, who would referee all four Tests, impressing with both his competence and impartiality, there was also no fear of this being negated by hometown officiating.

John Taylor of the British Lions is tackled during a match on the British Lions Tour to New Zealand in 1971. (Photo Getty Images) (Photo Getty Images)

At the same time coach James felt his team had been a little fortunate to win. And it was typical of his ability to see beyond the immediate that he regarded the All Blacks’ 22-12 win in the second Test in Christchurch as “immeasurably more encouraging.” The All Blacks scored five tries including two from Burgess and a remarkable solo effort from Kirkpatrick, beating off five tacklers in a run from his own half, to the two claimed by Gerald Davies.

But James took encouragement from the scrum, where he felt that the Lions competed effectively enough to provide a platform for victory. For the third Test at Wellington the uncapped Derek Quinnell came in on the blindside to quell Going.

The first 20 minutes at Wellington may have been the best in Lions history. Their back division — Dawes and Gibson, supreme passers of the ball, at centre inside world-class wings Duckham and Gerald Davies with the indomitable JPR at fullback and the Edwards-John combination at half-back — was among the best of all time. But a reputation for flamboyance was based largely on an unbeaten run through New Zealand’s provinces. In Tests, the Lions could compete up front with the All Blacks, in itself a huge advance on their predecessors, but rarely exerted the dominance felt necessary to unleash the backs.

The exception, with the All Blacks weakened by an injury to Whiting and an out-of-position recall from retirement for Brian Lochore, was the first quarter at Wellington. At the end of it the Lions led 13-0. John dropped a goal in the third minute, then two irresistible breaks by Edwards, the second including a still-remembered smashing hand-off on Burgess, led to tries by Gerald Davies and John, who converted both. The All Blacks responded with a try by Laurie Mains, McCormick’s successor at fullback, but got no closer and it ended 13-3.

Leading 2-1, the Lions had already exceeded the achievements of all of their predecessors in New Zealand, but the vital step was still to come. Meads wryly congratulated them on drawing the series. It looked as if he was right in the opening stages of the final Test at Auckland, where the All Blacks were eight points up in as many minutes, and it was still that way five minutes before the break. But John landed a penalty and Dixon went over from a line-out. John’s conversion made it 8-8 at half-time.

John kicked them into the lead after the break, but the All Blacks levelled with a try from Tom Lister. Then came the decisive, extraordinary moment as Williams, 45 metres out, landed the only drop goal of an international career which was to extend into another decade and take in 63 matches.

Mains landed an equalising penalty with eight minutes to go, but the final stages were dominated by the tactical kicking of the Lions half-backs, in the words of Reason and James “like batsmen blocking out for a draw”, John narrowly missing with a drop goal. But when Mr Pring’s whistle went, it was still 14-14 and the Lions had won the series.

There was, as Meads pointed out, a certain irony in this: “You’ve always claimed that the Lions are the ball-handlers in this series — but we did that today, and all you did was kick!” The All Blacks had scored two tries to one. But as Dr. Smith said “we had to win” — and unlike their predecessors, these Lions had both the means and the will to do so.

Meads would later credit Gibson and No. 8 Mervyn Davies as the most important Lions players. He reckoned that Gibson’s “quickness, skill and courage” broke up 80 percent of All Black back movements while Davies not only dominated the back of the line-out, previously an All Black strength, but “moved with quite startling speed and intelligence — an instinctive reaction almost — to trouble-spots, killing the ball until the Lions could regroup.”

They were, Meads reckoned at the end of a 14-year international career, “the greatest touring team I have played against.”

Forty-six years on, their achievement stands alone among Lions teams to visit New Zealand. For how much longer?

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1971: Lions that stand alone in history
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