'71 Lions secure their place in history
August 12, 2011
British & Irish Lions scrum-half Gareth Edwards makes the break that lead to Peter Dixon scoring for the Lions © Getty Images
Context is all. Certain matches will always be memorable, whatever the quality of the rugby played. Ask anyone who was at any of the six World Cup finals so far - even the supreme dud that was 2007 - and they'll tell you so. Yet would we remember any of them for the straightforward quality of play?
The same evidently applied 40 years ago this weekend when the All Blacks took on the British & Irish Lions in the final match of a four-Test series at Eden Park, Auckland. It was two weeks on from the match described in the previous article in this series, the third Test at Dunedin, where an 11-3 win had given the Lions a 2-1 lead.
All Black captain Colin Meads pointed congratulation to the tourists on 'drawing the series' but had made it clear they had no intention of letting their unbeaten record in Lions series slip without an immense battle. The tourists stood on the verge of a triumph unmatched since the earliest days of touring, when the hosts had still been novices in the game - a series victory over one of the southern hemisphere giants. Their predecessors of 1955 had led 2-1 in South Africa, only to go down 22-8 in the final Test.
As tour chronicler John Reason wrote: "No one looking at images on film, or reading words on paper, will ever be able to feel the tension that gripped not only Eden Park but also the whole of New Zealand and the whole of the rugby communities of Great Britain and Europe. Making history was an agonising business."
The outcome, he reckoned, was a match that the detached observer might consider a 'last act of the drama not worthy of the rest of the play'. It was a match in which the teams, as Meads wryly concluded afterwards, the teams reversed their roles. As he told his Lions counterpart John Dawes: "You've always claimed that your Lions are the ball-handlers in this series - but we did that today and all your guys did was kick!"
Dawes conceded that Meads was right, but told biographer David Parry-Jones: "To secure our place in history, we simply had to play winning rugby. Otherwise our mission was doomed to be less than historic."
The Lions had already sealed one piece of history, completing a clean sweep of all 20 matches in New Zealand outside the Tests. But there too, the pressures of nearing achievement had told. The final two matches saw them pressed hard by a North Auckland team containing three Going brothers among their backs before winning 11-5, then outscored by three tries to two by Bay of Plenty and rescued by the goal-kicking of fullback Bob Hiller, whose 11 points in a 20-14 victory took him to the unprecedented feat of twice scoring 100 points on a Lions tour. Yet Hiller never played in a Test match for the Lions, finding himself stuck first behind tour captain Tom Kiernan in South Africa in 1968, then the incomparable J.P.R Williams in 1971.
That the Lions would complete their mission looked highly unlikely in the opening minutes as the All Blacks charged into an 8-0 lead. Tension was evident from the start, with the Lions making a series of errors and the All Blacks' Peter Whiting, usually mild-mannered, punching opposite number Gordon Brown at an early line-out.
Brown went off for treatment to his mouth and while the Lions were down to 14 men, the All Blacks called a set move that involved the No.8 standing off, dummying to the blind side and then passing to a runner on the open side. Reason reported that the Lions had been waiting for this move all series and knew it so well that they were aware of the All Blacks code for it. The problem was that, with Brown off, their No.8 Mervyn Davies - whom Meads was later to bracket with centre Mike Gibson as the key member of the touring party - had to change his positioning.
All Blacks No.8 Alex 'Grizz' Wyllie carried through his appointed role and first five-eighth Wayne Cotterell exchanged passes with centre Mick Duncan and went over for a try, still worth only three points at this time. Fullback Laurie Mains converted, then added a penalty to make it 8-0.
One New Zealand account expresses bafflement that the Lions, needing a result, opted to play conservatively at this point, but Dawes' reasoning was simple. As he told Reason: "We had to stop them scoring again. You can come back from 8-0, but 11-0 or 13-0 is a different proposition."
The Lions held on until just before half-time before Barry John, who had earlier amazed his team-mates by missing from short range, landed a penalty. Dawes would have been happy, given the poor start, with 8-3 at the break. Instead the Lions were level, English flanker Peter Dixon scoring after a typical break after a line-out by Gareth Edwards and John adding the conversion.
Dawes told Reason: "I knew that we would not lose then", a conviction doubtless strengthened when John landed another penalty earlier in the second half to make it 11-8. But the All Blacks struck back with a try from flanker Tom Lister to level the scores at 11-11.
Then came the single most-remembered moment of the match. J.P.R Williams had, to much derision from team-mates who knew he rarely did such a thing, been saying all week that he planned to drop a goal. Receiving the ball close to half-way, and with few other options, he did exactly that to make it 14-11.
Still, though, the All Blacks pressed, dominating line-out and scrum. The Lions tackled furiously and John kicked every time the chance arose. With six minutes to go crafty scrum-half Sid Going lured Dixon offside at a scrum and Mains levelled the scores.
But, as Reason recorded, "the All Black forwards had given everything they had and by then Barry John had pushed them back and across the field so often that they were almost out on their feet." It was the Lions who dominated the final exchanges, with John and Edwards both failing with attempts at a match-winning drop-goal.
Dawes and Reason both thought that the Lions should have won, and that John and Edwards opted to pass rather than drop, a try might have resulted. But at this stage the Lions were bent on the draw that would make history, with victory on the day a secondary consideration.
Referee John Pring, who had handled all four Tests, blew for time with the 14-14 scoreline fulfilling Lions manager Doug Smith's pre-tour prediction of a 2-1 Lions win with one draw. It was also the end of perhaps the greatest All Black career, Meads' final match after 55 Tests and 133 appearances all told spread over 14 years.
For the Lions it was more of a beginning. The 1974 team in South Africa, containing many of the same players, would write their own chapter of history, winning every match until they too were held to a draw in the last. The 1989 team in Australia and the 1997 visitors to South Africa have added to the short list of winning Lions teams.
But the full extent of the achievement of 1971 is clear when one considers what has happened to Lions teams in New Zealand since. The four sides to venture there have recorded just two victories in 14 Tests and only one of them - that of 1993 - going into the final Test with the chance to emulate their predecessors of 1971 by winning the series.
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.