New Zealand rugby's saddest victory
July 17, 2009
Bev Risman dots down for a try in the Lions' fourth Test victory over New Zealand in Auckland in 1959 © Getty Images
Don Clarke Dick Conway John Gwilliam Dave Hewitt Peter Jackson Jack Matthews Colin Meads Tony O'Reilly Bev Risman Kel Tremain Bleddyn Williams
This Saturday will find Bev Risman on a cruise ship in the Baltic headed for Latvia, home of his ancestors. But it is pretty fair bet that the 71-year-old former England and Lions outside-half will cast his mind back 50 years to the day, to his involvement in perhaps the most dramatic and remarkable match in a short but distinguished rugby union career.
It was always likely that he would eventually turn to league, where he enjoyed a long and successful career, captaining Leeds during one of their greatest periods and leading a league Lions tour. His father Gus was one of the 13-a-side game's authentic legends. But Gus, who had been forced by family circumstances to go north from Cardiff as a teenager, advised his son to take the make the most of the opportunity to play top-class union before turning professional.
So it was that Bev forced his way into the England team in 1959 and, playing outside combative scrum-half Dick Jeeps, performed so well that he made that summer's Lions tour of Australia and New Zealand. There, on the July 18, 1959, he played in the first Test against the All Blacks in Dunedin.
In one respect it was like three-quarters of the All Blacks-Lions matches that have ever been played. New Zealand won. The manner of that 18-17 victory meant, though, that it was like no other.
The greatest of New Zealand rugby writers Terry McLean, always a patriot but never one-eyed, wrote that, 'if it were possible New Zealand would like to rub this match out of the record'. It was an opinion widely shared among the 41,500 crowd, a Carisbrook record, who chanted 'Red, Red, Red' in the final moments as the Lions pressed at the All Blacks' line. It was, reckoned veteran administrator Arthur Marslin, 'the first time a crowd in New Zealand has called for the other side to win'. The New Zealand Herald headlined 'New Zealand rugby's saddest victory'.
The composition of that scoreline explains the extraordinary reaction. The Lions scored four tries, with one conversion and a penalty - 17 points when a try was still worth only three. The All Blacks' 18 came from six penalties struck by the powerful boot of fullback Don Clarke. Three of those scores came in the last 15 minutes as the All Blacks hit back from a 17-9 deficit. The last was landed two minutes from time after Irish prop Gordon Wood, Keith's father, was ruled offside. "Even then we went 90 metres and were on their line, where we were penalised again," recalls Risman.
Passions cool as time elapses, but he says, "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. We were penalised about twice as often as they were, a lot of the time in Don Clarke's kicking range. He missed more kicks than we did as well."
New Zealand Rugby Union president Gordon Brown said at the after-match dinner that the result was 'won within the framework of the rules' for which 'no apology need be offered'. These were, McLean recorded in his account of the tour, phrases that the Lions in-house jokers, the Irish duo of scrum-half Andy Mulligan and wing Tony O'Reilly, put to a great deal of satirical use in the following weeks.
Weighing up referee Alan Fleury's performance Welsh journalist J.B.G Thomas reckoned that New Zealand officials were, "not biased, but they are not competent". McLean recorded issues both over the "propensity of the Lions for infringing the laws and the quality of the refereeing". He thought the crowd's reaction a stirring of recent and painful memory, the All Blacks 4-0 defeat in South Africa in 1949 in spite of scoring more tries in three of the Tests.
Risman was involved in three of the Lions tries, a first-half break creating a score for O'Reilly and two kicks setting up tries for Welsh centre Malcolm Price. The other was scored by the Coventry wing genius Peter Jackson after a 65-yard attack. Bev recalls, "Every one of our tries came from back play, which was the essence of what we set out to do." At the same time he recalls a magnificent effort from the Lions pack. "It was assumed that we'd be second best up front, but they played brilliantly and at least matched the All Blacks."
He also became the Lions kicker after some misses by Irish centre David Hewitt. "I took two conversions, both from the touchline and did get one over. I suppose you could say that if I'd kicked the other, we would have won."
Unsurprisingly, he has strong memories of Clarke. "He was huge for a fullback, bigger than some forwards. To see someone of his size move so well across the pitch was quite something. He won the second Test as well, with a try in the last couple of minutes, so there was not much doubt he was the man of the series."
Clarke's scoring feats induced much the same sort of awe that later attached to Jonny Wilkinson. By the end of the series, when he had 10 caps, he was already the all-time leading scorer in internationals between the eight traditional Test nations. When he retired in 1964 with 207 points in 31 tests, next on the all-time list was France's Jean Prat, with 90.
Injuries, including one to Risman, forced the Lions into several changes for the second Test. The All Blacks were also much changed, recalling Colin Meads - left out at Dunedin - and giving debuts to three men who would make a big impact as All Blacks, wing Ralph Caulton, flanker Kel Tremain and No.8 Red Conway, the man who would later have a finger amputated rather than risk missing a tour of South Africa.
Risman was reminded of those narrow losses in the first two Tests last month when he went to the second test on the Lions tour of South Africa. "It was very similar, a team that might have won both matches losing them."
And like their counterparts 50 years later, the 1959 Lions battled on and were rewarded at the end - in their case the fourth Test at Auckland. "We were determined not to lose every Test, but to vindicate ourselves and like this year's team we did it, scoring three tries to their two penalties," remembers Bev who, restored to the team, scored a brilliant solo blind-side try to clinch victory.
It was, he recalls, "Just one of those things that you try and on some days they come off." It will, one suspects, be worked over in greater detail - along with the idiosyncracies of Mr Fleury's decision-making - when the 1959 Lions hold their 50th anniversary reunion in November.