Rugbu Union

When the Lions toppled the All Blacks – 50 years on

A lot is remembered about the historic 1971 British and Irish Lions tour of New Zealand.

There is the iconic coach, Carwyn James, John Dawes’ calm captaincy and the on-field brilliance of Barry John, who became known affectionately as ‘the King’.

Then there are Lions legends such as Sir Gareth Edwards, Gerald Davies, Willie John McBride, Mervyn Davies and Mike Gibson who lit up the series against the All Blacks.

What is sometimes forgotten is something that happened on 14 August 1971, when full-back JPR Williams kicked the only drop-goal of his international career to ensure the Lions won the Test series.

It is perhaps the most famous drop-goal in Welsh rugby history, for it helped the tourists achieve a 14-14 draw in the fourth Test. A 2-1 series win was secure.

The stakes were high at Eden Park, where an All Blacks victory would have levelled the series, while the Lions knew a win or draw would clinch a first series triumph in New Zealand.

With the score 11-11 in the second half and a Lions attacking move on the back foot, Williams swung a 45-metre drop-goal that soared through the Auckland posts. People could not believe what they were witnessing but apparently Williams had a premonition.

“We were on the bus going to the ground and everybody was nervous and uptight and wanted to get home basically,” explained Williams.

“I thought I would liven up this coach and I told them all I was going to drop a goal. Everybody burst out laughing.”

Having backed up his words, Williams reminded his colleagues of what had been said immediately after the kick.

“That is why I turned to the rest of the party in the stands and said ‘I told you!'” he said.

“We were going backwards from a playing point of view and I could not have caught it any sweeter. I call it the eighth wonder of the world.”

It completed a remarkable few months as the class of 1971 achieved something no side has managed before or since, and it was all narrated for supporters back home by the dulcet tones of Cliff Morgan.

Lions players in training before they travelled to New Zealand via Australia

The record

There was a strong Welsh influence in this touring party. Wales had won a Five Nations Grand Slam in 1971 and provided the bulk of the Lions squad – bringing their fluid playing style with them.

The tourists’ pack were determined to stand up to the challenge of facing New Zealand’s forwards, led by Sir Colin Meads and Alex Wyllie, to provide the platform for a star-studded backline.

Williams mentioned the tiredness among the party and that is because they played 26 matches on a tour that lasted more than three months. Compare this to the nine games for Warren Gatland’s 2021 Lions.

The flight out alone included stops in Frankfurt, Rome, Tehran, Delhi and Hong Kong before arriving in Australia, where they played two games.

They included an opening 15-11 defeat to Queensland in Brisbane which resulted in the hosts’ coach, Des Connor, describing their opponents as the worst Lions ever. It was to prove one of just two losses on the trip, with 23 victories and that final draw.

After the early disappointment in Australia, the Lions dazzled in New Zealand, as typified by a brilliant 47-9 win over Wellington which included four tries for Wales wing John Bevan, who scored a record-equalling 17 on tour.

Watching the Lions travel successfully around the country, New Zealanders suddenly knew they were in a for a challenge and, on the Saturday before the first Test, there was the infamous violent game against Canterbury, the nation’s top provincial side.

This saw Ray McLoughlin and Sandy Carmichael ruled out of the tour. The Lions won 14-3 in what Mervyn Davies described as the nastiest game he had ever witnessed.

The tourists at least managed to protect their prized asset.

“They came to that game to soften us and we lost three players and it was a disgrace,” said Llanelli lock Delme Thomas.

“Barry John was supposed to be playing outside-half but Carwyn took him out of that game at the last minute in the dressing room.”

The 1971 British and Irish Lions touring squad
The 1971 British and Irish Lions touring squad

The Tests

The Lions were unbeaten in New Zealand going into the Test series, but the four internationals were all that mattered.

John’s half-back partner Edwards had been a doubt for the first Test but started the match, before eventually being replaced by fellow Welsh scrum-half Ray ‘Chico’ Hopkins.

The tourists won 9-3 in Dunedin after overcoming an opening All Blacks onslaught. A charge-down try by Scotland prop Ian ‘Mighty Mouse’ McLauchlan followed, plus two penalties from John whose impact was crucial.

“In that first Test, Barry gave us a masterclass in controlled kicking which had poor old New Zealand full-back Fergie McCormick in a right tizz,” said Edwards.

This provided a confidence, perhaps an overconfidence, as the All Blacks won the second Test 22-12 in Christchurch. The hosts scored five tries, with the Lions only really responding with two scores from Gerald Davies.

The tourists’ belief had not been shattered, though, recalls Edwards: “Even though we had lost, which is difficult to say now, we all took encouragement from it.

“Carwyn was the same and when we entered the dressing room we all said ‘we can beat these guys’. That match, more than the first Test, gave us the confidence to go forward.”

The Lions did not make the same mistake in the third Test in Wellington as they secured a 13-3 win.

Another Gerald Davies try was complemented by another John kicking masterclass, which included two drop-goals and a try inspired by a rejuvenated Edwards, who had been quiet in the first two Tests.

And so the fourth Test would determine the series.

“Right at the start of the series our team manager Doug Smith said it would be 2-1 to the Lions, with one draw,” said John.

Enter JPR Williams to create history and prove that prediction correct.

Lions coach Carwyn James played twice for Wales at fly-half
Lions coach Carwyn James played twice for Wales at fly-half

The coach

Behind every great team is a great coach who is appreciated by the greatest of players. In 1971 that man was James, a visionary ahead of his time.

“All the great excitement was we would have Carwyn as our coach,” said Edwards.

John and James both hailed from Cefneithin Rugby Club.

“I don’t think New Zealand had ever seen anybody like Carwyn before,” added John.

James was the coach of Llanelli second-row and captain Delme Thomas.

“Coaches are doing today what Carwyn was doing 50 years ago – he was way ahead of his time,” said Thomas.

James encouraged John’s first Test kicking demolition of McCormick and made some crucial tactical tweaks for the third Test, when he brought in uncapped back-rower Derek Quinnell to counter Ian Fitzpatrick and Sid Going.

James never coached the Wales national side, largely because of his belief the coach should chair the selectors’ meetings and be responsible for choosing the other selectors.

At one stage he applied for the role but then withdrew his application. His legacy was with Llanelli and the Lions.

New Zealand would have been sick of James as he continued to orchestrate famous wins over the All Blacks. First there was Llanelli’s 9-3 triumph in 1972 and the Barbarians’ victory over the All Blacks in 1973 followed.

James died aged 53 in 1983.

The captain

Dawes was the on-field leader in New Zealand and his calm persona and formidable centre partnership with Ireland great Gibson proved pivotal in the series success.

With Edwards and John inside them and JPR Williams, Gerald Davies, John Bevan and David Duckham outside, their job was to facilitate and create.

Dawes held the unique distinction of having been captain and coach of both Wales and the Lions.

In 1971 as skipper he led Wales to the Five Nations Grand Slam and the Lions to their only series win over New Zealand.

As coach of Wales, Dawes won four Five Nations titles including two Grand Slams and four Triple Crowns and was coach of the 1977 Lions in New Zealand. He passed away earlier this year, aged 80

“He was Carwyn’s lieutenant on the pitch and he realised the quality of the players he had on the field,” said John.

“He was a master on the pitch.”

Barry John in the first Test in Dunedin
Barry John in the first Test in Dunedin

The King

The 1971 Lions had outstanding players, some of the finest to have graced the game and John was part of that elite.

John had previous Lions experience, although his 1968 tour ended prematurely when he suffered a broken collarbone in the first Test against South Africa.

The stars aligned in New Zealand in 1971 when John, aged 26, played some of his finest rugby, finishing as the Lions’ top Test scorer and cementing his reputation as one of the sport’s greatest players.

He became one of rugby union’s first iconic superstars, catching the eye and the imagination with his balance, silky running, vision and precision kicking.

His relationship with Edwards had flourished with Cardiff and Wales and the pair had helped inspire a Wales Grand Slam. Their influence remained strong in New Zealand, where people still talk about John’s exploits half a century on.

“There was not much sport on that summer so the focus switched on to some rugby boys playing in New Zealand and we became the back-page story,” said John.

“People always remember the first team to achieve something and we are the only Lions team to win a series in New Zealand.

“Recalling that 50 years on now is strange.”

The tour should have signalled a continuation of a glittering career but John walked away from rugby the following year aged 27.

After 30 internationals for Wales and the Lions he retired, citing the pressure of fame and expectation as being behind his decision.

The Lions squad arrive back on British soil
When the Lions squad arrived back on British soil ‘it was like the Beatles had landed’

The legacy

The adulation John and the rest of the Lions received was evident when they touched down at Heathrow in August 1971.

“It is only the days afterwards you realised what you had achieved,” said John.

The welcome home was unrivalled.

“I will never forget it. It was like the Beatles had landed – there were thousands of people,” said Thomas.

This was an acknowledgement of what this group of Lions had done, with only the 2017 drawn series coming close to emulating their achievement.

“It is now maybe, years later, I appreciate what a great achievement it was, never to be forgotten,” said Edwards.

The final word fittingly goes to the Lions man who had the final word in the series

“To beat New Zealand in New Zealand, it does not get any better than that,” said JPR Williams.

“This has been proved before and since.”

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