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Dublin: 5 °C Sunday 20 January, 2019

'Barry John was in the bath when the intruder entered his bedroom'

Warren Gatland, Vern Cotter, Joe Schmidt and others reflect on the legacy of the British and Irish Lions.

Barry John of the British Lions is pursued by Tane Norton of New Zealand in 1971.
Barry John of the British Lions is pursued by Tane Norton of New Zealand in 1971.

BELOW IS AN extract from When Lions Roared: The Lions, the All Blacks & the Legendary Tour of 1971 by Tom English and Peter Burns.

Barry John was in the bath when the intruder entered his bedroom and made away with the watch which had been given to him by his wife as a departing gift. Barry never heard him, never saw him, and by the time he noticed that the watch was gone, it was too late. It was a moment in history – the one and only occasion the New Zealanders got the better of the King during that storied summer of 1971.

The Lions were in the town of Pukekohe, 50 kilometres south of Auckland, and Carwyn James’ tourists were about to begin their three-month, 24-match trek around New Zealand against some obliging rural fodder: Counties-Thames Valley. The following day, the Lions put 25 points on them. For the New Zealand press, it wasn’t enough. If the Lions were any good, they wrote, they’d have scored 50.

After one game, conclusions were drawn. The All Blacks should beat this lot 4–0 in the series. Anything less would be an affront to the jersey, an insult to the legacy of their former coach, Fred Allen, who had taken charge for 16 Tests up until 1968 and who, by winning 16 out of 16, had sent a message to the wider world that New Zealand was the greatest rugby nation on earth.

After two games, the clean-sweep conclusion was being tweaked. The Lions had just hammered King Country and, though the local media maintained that 4–0 was still likely, it was no longer an absolute certainty. On it went. The Lions ran amok against Waikato in Hamilton, a John Bevan hat trick at the heart of the rout. The Maori got heavy in Auckland, but they were seen off, too. At every turn the Lions were told, ‘Wait until you get to Wellington,’ as if the Wellington boys were the ones who would categorically put the visitors back in their box.

When the time came, the Lions beat Wellington 47–9, and all of New Zealand gasped as one. Bevan got four more tries, Mike Gibson got two and Sandy Carmichael, John Taylor and Barry John got one apiece. Nine scores against one of the pre-eminent provincial sides in the land. The country had never seen anything like it.

‘Onslaught crumbles capital!’ ran the headline in the Dominion the morning after. ‘Athletic Park watched in stunned disbelief as much as admiration,’ the newspaper reported. The bravado of the 4–0 prediction had now been obliterated, replaced with something approaching fear and awe.

When it was all over, months later, the Dominion produced a magazine of the tour, detailing every cough and splutter of what had happened in each city and one-horse town the Lions had gone to. They hailed them as the greatest team that had ever set foot in the land of the long white cloud, better even than the celebrated men who had beaten New Zealand at home not once but twice in 1937 — the Springboks of Danie Craven, Boy Louw and the splendidly named flanker, Ebbo Bastard.

The Dominion’s final reckoning was that Barry John was the greatest number 10, Gareth Edwards was the greatest number nine, Mike Gibson was the greatest centre and JPR Williams was the greatest full-back. The starting point of the New Zealand media in those innocent early days in Pukekohe in late May was that the Lions were going down; the end point, in mid August, was that the Lions were going down all right — in history.


The documenting of the Lions’ greatness went on for page after page, the last headline encapsulating how the rugby nation felt having watched them in full flow. It simply read, ‘Thank you’.

Joe Schmidt: In 1971 I was only about five years old.

Warren Gatland: I must have been nearly eight.

Vern Cotter: I was 11.

Warren Gatland: You kind of get brainwashed about the All Blacks. You think the All Blacks are the best team in the world. I thought rugby was invented in New Zealand. I didn’t know that anyone else around the world played it. So, when the Lions came to New Zealand in 1971 and won, it had a significant impact on me. That red jersey has had a profound effect on me throughout my whole life.

Joe Schmidt: My memories are a little hazy, but I remember some of the flying players: JPR Williams, Gerald Davies and David Duckham, the guys who got on the end of the ball and just caused havoc; the likes of Mike Gibson and Barry John, who kicked it, ran with it and did a lot of pretty amazing things. Those are the images that I can recall.

Vern Cotter: My whole school was taken to see them play and I remember it clearly because it was my first big game of rugby. It was Bay of Plenty at Domain Park in Tauranga. We all trooped off in the school bus, walked single file down the touchline and sat on the edge of the field. I was so close to the paddock I could hear the thundering of bodies and feel the wind on my face as these players ran past me. Because we were sitting on it, you could feel the ground moving. I was in awe of that day. It wasn’t just a game of rugby, it was a cultural event and one of my biggest memories as a kid.

Sean Fitzpatrick: My first rugby heroes weren’t All Blacks, but members of the 1971 Lions team. Gareth Edwards was my hero. I even bought myself a red jersey so that when my brother and I played in the garden he would be the All Blacks and I would be the Lions.

Joe Schmidt: I grew up in a country where you start playing rugby in bare feet in the backyard as soon as you can get out of your nappies. Rugby is everything in New Zealand. For a group to come over and remain unbeaten through the provinces and then win a Test series is something that is incredibly difficult to do and it’s a measure of the quality of the individuals that were on that team, and also a measure of the camaraderie that they shared, that they were able to accomplish that feat. In these days of science, where everything is tracked and measured and analysed, where you have GPS to see how far players run, how hard they hit and so on, these guys had the number of empty glasses on the table to see how many pints they had drunk. But boy could they play.

Warren Gatland File Photo 2017 Lions boss Warren Gatland was among those who took inspiration from the 1971 side. Source: David Davies

Sean Fitzpatrick: JPR Williams, Gerald Davies, David Duckham, Mike Gibson, Barry John, Gareth Edwards, Gordon Brown, Willie John McBride — just thinking of them makes me smile. All the boys of my age loved the Lions and the way they played. Prior to that tour, everyone had tried to kick like Don Clarke, who was a legend as far as we were concerned. You ran up to the ball and hoofed it as hard as you could, as he did. Then along came Barry John and he kicked around the corner. It wasn’t just that it was different — it was that it worked so well. After that, it was farewell to Don.

Graham Henry: The Lions tours of 1959 and 1971 had an intense effect in our household when I was growing up. My father and I used to talk for hours about those teams. The 1971 Lions changed the face of New Zealand rugby. They helped lay the foundations of the All Blacks side that won the 1987 World Cup and that style of counter-attacking play that we’ve seen from All Blacks sides ever since. That was a tour that had a huge impact on how I coached the game. We got beaten by a team who played fifteen-man rugby. They shook the foundations of New Zealand rugby and from the top down things changed.

Steve Hansen: My father was Des Hansen, the coach at Marist rugby club in Auckland from way back. The 1971 Lions had a big influence on my dad’s coaching philosophy and left a big impression on me as a young lad. Dad’s big thing wasn’t about coaching rugby skills, but getting players to think. When he was coaching, most coaches were ‘Do it as I say’ dictators, but Dad challenged us to think ‘Why did that work?’ or ‘How could it work better?’ When I became an All Blacks coach we’d often discuss the game, and Dad wasn’t shy about coming forward with his opinion. He was a massive influence on me. I’ve been lucky in coaching, being associated with other people as well, but the basics
definitely come from him. And a lot of his whole view of coaching, which he passed on to me, came from that 1971 Lions tour and the attitudes of Carwyn James and his players. Their influence on New Zealand rugby in the years since can’t be underestimated.

Graham Henry: After 1971, guys like George Simpkin at Waikato and Frank Ryan at Wellington took on the 15-man game as well. They took on a lot of the Lions’ backline set-up, the way their centres stood in defence and how they created space for the players on the outside. I took a lot of that on board. The coaching culture in New Zealand changed, from the grassroots upwards. By the mid ’80s and going into the 1987 World Cup, New Zealand boasted a generation of outstanding, modern-thinking, quick-witted players. I wonder if I would have been as successful as I have been, or if I would have become a coach at all, without that tour. Before Carwyn arrived with a host of new ideas, coaching patterns in New Zealand had become sterile. Everyone was doing the same thing, no one dared to be different. The game had moved on. You have to understand, New Zealand is a very young country, and rugby has put our country on the map. This country earned respect from the rest of the world for three things: what we did in two world wars and, to a lesser extent, what we’ve done on the rugby field. So, over time, rugby has become a major part of our national identity. And in 1971, the Lions showed us how to play.

When Lions Roared: The Lions, the All Blacks & the Legendary Tour of 1971 by Tom English and Peter Burns is published by Polaris Publishing. More info here.

The42 has just published its first book, Behind The Lines, a collection of some of the year’s best sports stories. Pick up your copy in Eason’s, or order it here today (€10):

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