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Revisiting The British & Irish Lions’ Historic 1971 Series Victory Over New Zealand

DUNEDIN, NEW ZEALAND - JUNE 26: General action during the First Test match between New Zealand and the British Lions at Carisbrook on June 26, 1917 in Dunedin, New Zealand. The British Lions won the match 9 - 3. (Photo by Getty Images)

1971: Idi Amin became the president (dictator) of Uganda, cigarette advertisements were banned on TV in the USA and Walt Disney World was opened in Florida.

The British and Irish Lions played 29 matches on a tour of New Zealand (including two matches against Australian sides Queensland and New South Wales) in which they won a Test series against the All Blacks – the first and only time this has happened since 1904.

The tour took place between May 12 and August 14. The Lions head coach at the time was Carwyn James and the squad comprised of seven Scotsmen, six Englishmen, six Irishmen and 14 Welshmen.

The squad included the likes of JPR Williams, Peter Dixon, Gareth Edwards, Barry John, Gordon Brown, Willie John McBride and was captained by John Dawes – all legends of British and Irish rugby.

The first match was a 15-11 loss to Queensland – one of only two losses on that tour, which is massively impressive taking into account the sheer number of matches they played in a three-month period. That schedule makes the 2017 Lions tour look a lot more reasonable, despite the fact that rugby players are a fair bit bigger now than they were then.

A CNN study highlights that All Blacks today are an average of 10cm taller and 14 kilos heavier than their counterparts from the 1970s, attributing this massive difference to the change in diet and training, accelerated by the era of professionalism in the sport.

The lead up to the first Test saw the Lions score 307 points, conceding only 116, including a 47-9 trouncing over Wellington (the 1970s equivalent of the modern Super Rugby franchise, the Hurricanes), a 35-14 win against Waikato (the Chiefs), a 21-9 win over Otago (the Highlanders), a 14-9 win over Canterbury (the Crusaders) and a 23-12 win over the New Zealand Maori. The 1971 Lions also beat Auckland (the Blues) 19-12 before the third and decisive Test. This clean sweep may be more difficult to achieve this time around.

A match between the British Lions and Wellington at Wellington, 10th June 1971. The Lions won 47-9. From left to right, John Taylor, Andy Leslie, D Waller, Mervyn Davies, J H W Kirkby, A Carmichael, Willie John McBride, Delme Thomas, John Pullin and Gareth Edwards. (Photo by Central Press/Hulton Archive/Getty Images).


The first Test was a tense and physical affair with Scotsman Ian McLaughlin scoring the only try of the game in a 9-3 victory for the Lions in front of a full crowd in Dunedin. The All Blacks came back with a vengeance for the second Test, scoring five tries to the Lions two in Christchurch, winning 22-12 and levelling the series.

The third Test was another tight, physical affair in which the legendary Barry John scored nine of the Lions’ 13 points (including a memorable drop goal) to give the Lions what would prove to be a crucial series lead going into the fourth Test.

With the All Blacks determined to level the series, the British and Irish Lions produced a dogged and energetic display, which saw JPR Williams slot a drop goal from 45 metres out (only drop goal of his Test career) to give the Lions a lead going into the final minutes of the match. Laurie Mains tied up the encounter with a penalty minutes from full-time to level the match, but the Lions held out to secure what was, and still is, a momentous series victory for the British and Irish Lions.

Because the nature of rugby has changed so much in the 46 years since that historic Lions tour, there are few direct comparisons and links which can be made that would hold relevance as to how the 2017 Lions can achieve the same feat as the Lions of 1971. The class of ’71 didn’t go down to New Zealand expecting to win a Test series against the All Blacks (something which hadn’t been done in almost 75 years).

They travelled none the less and produced some scintillating performances with the Welsh core of the squad (particularly in the backline) providing flair and pace, which was enabled and supported by the efforts of a physical yet skilful forward pack.

Let’s hope that the Lions of 2017 can go down to New Zealand with the same ambition and drive, and produce what is widely regarded to be an upset against an All Black squad that has been named World Rugby’s Team of the Year every year since 2009.

Graham Manditsch, Pundit Arena

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Author: The PA Team

This article was written by a member of The PA Team.