LONDON (Reuters) - The impact made by the all-conquering 1971 British and Irish Lions in New Zealand revolutionised the game and was a major factor in the All Blacks’ triumph in the inaugural World Cup 16 years later, according to a new book about the tour.
“When Lions Roared - The Lions, the All Blacks and the Legendary Tour of 1971”, by Tom English and Peter Burns, details what is still widely regarded as the high water mark of Lions rugby and remains the tourists’ only series win in New Zealand.
Told predominantly in the words of those who were there, on both sides, the book recreates the atmosphere of the day in spine-tingling fashion and is the perfect hors d‘oeuvre for this year’s tour.
In some ways it shows up the incredible contrast between today’s professionals and the amateurs who played 26 games over three months, being beaten black and blue in the process, all for 75 pence per day expenses.
In other ways, however, it shows how little has changed, as revolutionary coach Carwyn James tried to develop the sort of “all-court game” that remains the hallmark of today’s most successful teams but still needed a dominant scrum to do it.
“The 1971 Lions changed the face of New Zealand rugby,” the All Blacks’ 2011 World Cup-winning coach and former Lions coach Graham Henry said in the book’s prologue.
“That helped lay the foundations of the All Black side that won the 1987 World Cup and that style of counter-attacking play we have seen from the All Blacks ever since.”
Steve Hansen, who followed Henry by coaching his country to the 2015 title, was similarly impressed. “Their influence on New Zealand rugby can’t be under-estimated,” he said.
The book is structured as a chronological account of the tour, presented almost as a round-table conversation, so that players of both sides debate who threw the first punch in the battle of X, or whether the sustained by Y and Z were the result of planned thuggery or the outcome of legitimate rucking.
The chapter on the match against Canterbury, described by Lions lock Delme Thomas as “without doubt the dirtiest game I ever played in” probably makes the most shocking reading.
The brutal encounter ended prop Sandy Carmichael’s tour with mashed cheekbone after he was punched repeatedly in the scrum and the book’s photo of his swollen, battered face looks like something from a police file.
“They kicked punched, and elbowed anyone in a red jersey who came anywhere near the ball. It was a wonder that nobody was killed,” said Lions lock Gordon Brown.
However, All Blacks number eight Alex Wyllie, who was himself on the end of a haymaker from Lions prop Ray McLoughlin, dismissed it all as “just a bit of biff.” Irishman McLoughlin broke his thumb with the blow, bringing an end to his tour.
Amid the fighting, there was also some rugby and by the time the four-match test series arrived the Lions had scorched a trail, beating the cream of New Zealand’s mighty provincial sides and shocking the locals with their blistering backline.
Through the lens of history it does not seem that surprising that the likes of Gareth Edwards, Barry John, JPR Williams, Mike Gibson and Gerald Davies were able to rip through previously impermeable defences but at the time it was stunning.
The Lions had been to New Zealand five years earlier and were soundly thrashed 4-0. The All Blacks had not lost a home series since South Africa in 1937 or a home test for 10 years.
Further highlighting the achievement is the fact that in the 46 years since the 1971 tour, New Zealand have not lost another home series and have beaten the Lions in 12 of their 14 meetings.
Colin Meads, who said his new captaincy responsibilities reluctantly prevented him dishing out the “enforcement” he was famed for, said in the book that the retirement of a host of players following a bruising series defeat in South Africa in 1970 had left New Zealand more vulnerable than they realised against an opponent they had clearly under-estimated.
While the Lions backs cut rivals to ribbons with their speed of pass and the peerless kicking of Welsh flyhalf John, the forwards did their bit by standing up to a furious physical assault that leaves the reader wincing almost 50 years on - but by also giving the New Zealanders a lesson in dynamic scrummaging.
Irish lock Willie John McBride was the totem but all around him were uncompromising men of iron who knew their job was simply to win the ball and supply the backline of the ages.
The Lions survived an onslaught in the first test in Dunedin before snatching a 9-3 win with a charge-down try.
The All Blacks roared back to win the second 22-12 only for the tourists to triumph 13-3 in the third with a brilliant performance and a 50-metre drop goal from JPR Williams - who never kicked.
The fourth test was drawn 14-14 to ensure the Lions won the series 2-1, ironically with the key test victories achieved largely through forward power and John’s kicking rather than the counter-attacking ball-in-hand approach that had won so many admirers.
It made household names out of the likes of John, who stunned the game by retiring the following year, McBride, who led the Lions to a similarly impressive series win in South Africa three years later, and just about all the rest of the squad, who have dined out on their exploits ever since.
Conversely, it ended the careers of several icons of New Zealand rugby, not least “Pinetree” Meads, but the All Blacks quickly learned their lessons and have been “bouncing back” ever since.
* When Lions Roared: The Lions, The All Blacks and the Legendary Tour of 1971 by Tom English and Peter Burns is published by Polaris.
Editing by Ken Ferris