Lions win against the odds
July 29, 2011
Lions great Gareth Edwards was part of the historical 1971 side © Getty Images
So when was the best 20 minutes in the history of British and Irish rugby? If you are English it was probably extra time at Sydney in 2003. Wales, Scotland and Ireland would all have counterclaims.
But given that it implicates us all, you could make a very good case for 40 years ago this weekend - July 31st 1971 - when the British & Irish Lions played the All Blacks in the third of a four-Test series at Athletic Park, Wellington. The series was tied at 1-1. The Lions had emulated their predecessors of 1930 by winning the first Test, 9-3, at Carisbrook, Dunedin, before the All Blacks - led by Colin Meads - had restored the usual status quo with a 22-12 victory at Lancaster Park, Christchurch.
The third test loomed as pivotal - and never before had a Lions team won a third Test against the All Blacks. But there had already been copious evidence that this Lions squad was a little different to most of their predecessors. Not only were they unbeaten against the powerful New Zealand provinces - and this was the era in which Lions teams still played most of them - few had given the tourists serious trouble.
Perennial powerhouses Wellington had been flattened 47-9, a massive score in an era when a try (and the Lions scored nine, including four by wing John Bevan) still counted for only three points. Gerald Davies, who had scored both Lions tries in the 12-22 second Test loss, added four more a week later to light up an otherwise brutal match against Hawke's Bay.
Both teams were disrupted in their preparation for the third Test. New Zealand lost giant lock Peter Whiting and, to general amazement, called up former captain Brian Lochore. This event has passed into legend, remembered for Lochore leaving his wife a note at the family farm saying, in effect, 'won't be in for dinner, gone to play in Test match' - recalled as evidence of Lochore's lack of pretension and dedication to the All Black cause.
At the time, as John Reason's tour account makes clear, it was not quite seen like that. He wrote that former All Blacks were 'almost unanimous in their condemnation….they thought that it was wrong of the selectors to invite Lochore to return after he had retired from international rugby, and they thought that it was wrong of Lochore to accept'.
The Lions also had to reshuffle their forwards late in the day. Derek Quinnell, yet to play for Wales, had been called in at blind-side with a brief to restrict combative All Blacks scrum-half Sid Going, while Ireland's Fergus Slattery displaced Wales's John Taylor on the openside. But Slattery, whose Lions time would truly come three years later, was felled by a virus and Taylor reinstated.
Famously exposed to Wellington's fearsome elements - writer Tom Scott argued that the bizarre Millard Stand would have been an ideal venue for the world hang-gliding championships - Athletic Park was true to type on match day, with a vicious wind. The Lions opted to play with the elements in their favour, and took full advantage in a spectacular first 20 minutes. To look at the names in their back division - JPR Williams, David Duckham, John Dawes, Mike Gibson, Gerald Davies, Barry John, Gareth Edwards - is to realise why they were able to do it. Has a better back division ever played together at any time in rugby history?
But the forwards also played their part. It was Taylor's tackle, followed by sharp work at the breakdown by Mervyn Davies and a good pass by Quinnell, that gave Gibson the possession that he relayed for John to drop a third minute goal. Two tries followed in the next 15 minutes, both with crucial creative roles for Edwards. New Zealanders occasionally contest his perennial rating as the best player of all time, pointing out that Going habitually gave at least as good as he got in their head to head meetings. But both scores displayed his formidable mix of speed and sublety.
For the first score his blind-side run released Gerald Davies. The London Welsh wing had little space to work in, but needed less than any other player in living memory and duly squeezed over.
For the second Edwards drove through New Zealand first-five Bob Burgess - a photograph of the accompanying hand-off perfectly capturing the explosive dynamism of his play - before sending the elusive John over for the score. John, a recent convert to goal-kicking, landed both conversions with his trademark nonchalance and the Lions led 13-0 after 18 minutes. Reason records a voice from the stunned home crowd 'Jeez, they're going to score 50'.
They did not. Indeed, they did not score again - and neither Lions skipper Dawes nor opposite number Meads was certain at half-time that a 13 point margin was sufficient given the ferocity of the weather.
The Lions defended as well as they had attacked and New Zealand were hopelessly handicapped by their weakness at the line-out. Lochore, who had played all of his previous international rugby as a No.8, would even at his peak have been no replacement at lock for Whiting, a line-out specialist who at 6"7 was a good four inches taller.
One Lions team , the 1993 squad - who won the second test 20-7 - has exceeded the 13-3 margin of victory achieved 40 years ago this weekend, but that was a match in which each team scored a single try and Gavin Hastings' goal-kicking made the difference. The one British result that can be argued to reflect greater dominance of the All Blacks is England's 13-0 win and three tries to nil in Obolensky's match in 1936, but that was on home soil.
Not since the 1937 Springboks - famously 'the best team ever to leave New Zealand' - scored five tries to none in the decider at Eden Park had anyone so badly manhandled the All Blacks on home ground. Meads had no doubt about what had happened. He admitted that the All Blacks had been beaten 'up front and behind' and called the Lions the best team he had seen in New Zealand, ahead even of the 1956 Springboks.
But in congratulating the Lions on 'drawing the series', he left little doubt over the battle to be expected when they met again at Auckland a fortnight later.
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