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The Lions that roared – rugby in 1971

Back in 1971, Lions tours were arduous affairs – three-and-a-half months away from home, in a world without today’s modern communications. Unsurprisingly, not every player fancied going.

“To be honest, I could have done with a summer off,” remembers Barry John, who’d helped Wales to a Grand Slam that season and suffered plenty of physical punishment in the process. “But Carwyn was a very persuasive person, and promised me plenty of free time!”

In the end, John and his team mates were glad he got on the plane. The fly-half took just eight games to break the points-scoring record for a player touring New Zealand, and played a pivotal role in what was arguably the finest British team to ever take the field.

What can’t be disputed is that the class of ‘71 set a benchmark that’s never been equalled by the Lions before or since – they beat the All Blacks in a Test series.

They did it despite being on the receiving end of one of rugby’s most violent displays, from provincial giants Canterbury.

“It was brutal – there’s no point denying that,” remembers Gareth Edwards.

“There’s no point pretending it was anything other than a match where the opposition had come to prove a point.”

The match cost the Lions both their first choice props, including Sandy Carmichael, who was punched so often that he suffered five fractures to the cheekbone.

But it also fired up the tourists. Said Gerald Davies: “It proved that the British Lions were not a soft touch – that we were able to take that kind of hard, brutal rugby – and win.”

Win they did. After a cagey 9-3 victory in the First Test, and a 22-12 defeat in the second, the Lions produced a vintage display in the all-important third at Wellington.

“We were right up for it,” says Gareth Edwards.

“I haven’t seen a better performance from a British Lions team that I’ve been involved with.”

The tourists scored 13 points in 17 swashbuckling minutes to open up a winning lead. The 14-14 draw in the final rubber at Auckland completed a 2-1 series victory.

Equally impressively, the Lions won all twenty of their provincial games in New Zealand, playing some champagne rugby in the process. Against Hawke’s Bay, winger Gerald Davies scored four famous tries that left the crowd literally dumbstruck.

“Several times they greeted the try in total silence, because they couldn’t believe what they’d just seen,” recalls captain John Dawes.

“I think some of us in his own team felt the same.”

In truth, the other members of his team weren’t too shabby either. Before 1971, Lions tours were regarded by many as little more than ‘jolly-boys’ outings’ – end-of-season frolics where the recreation was as important as the rugby.

Afterwards, British rugby was, for a short while at least, on top of the world. Nowadays, the tours are eagerly awaited and worth millions in tourism and publicity. But I doubt the Lions brand would be what it is without Barry and the boys of ’71.

You can watch Richard Morgan’s look back at the Lions of 1971 –“Wales This Week – The Lions that Roared” – at 19.30, Tuesday June 28th on ITV 1 Wales.

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