History has not been kind to the 1977 Lions and, coming after the triumphs of 1971 and 1974, they were, perhaps, on a hiding to nothing but 40 years on its still hard see how a team with such a dominant Test pack could contrive to lose the series 3-1.
It wasn’t a lucky tour and those mitigating circumstances should not be totally ignored. When John Dawes was sounded out to coach the squad back in 1976 he might reasonably have hoped to have Gareth Edwards, Gerald Davies and JPR available but all three on this occasion decided to put family and career considerations first and withdrew from contention.
After the Wales Grand Slam of 1976 it was assumed Mervyn Davies would captain the tour party but soon after he was forced to retire from the game following a subarachnoid brain haemorrhage playing for Swansea against Pontypool. And then on the eve of departure Roger Uttley, a custom made back rower for a tough winter campaign in New Zealand, had to withdraw with a serious back injury.
Big shoes to fill but the 1977 Lions still had enough big-hitters surely? Well, yes, there might have 11 Lions old boys in the squad but only Mike Gibson, Derek Quinnell and Gordon Brown remained from the 1971 party. In terms of New Zealand rugby and what to expect they were pretty raw.
And then there was the weather, the wettest in living memory in New Zealand which reduced many of the grounds to quagmires both for matches and training. All of which can get pretty depressing. Nor did an aggressive media campaign help with some in the New Zealand Press seeming to think it was payback time for ’71. The usual accusations of sexual shenanigans and wrecking were trotted out and very quickly the Lions adopted a siege-like mentality.
Before long it escalated and the tour party’s fault lines were badly exposed. Despite four of the greatest Welsh players in history being unavailable Wales still contributed 18 players to the tour party as well as the captain Phil Bennett and coach John Dawes. It was too much. Wales were the leading Home Nation of the time, no question, but they had by no means sparkled in the 1977 Five Nations which France won without conceding a try.
Bennett was a most reluctant skipper and was also experiencing a rare dip in form exacerbated by every side on tour ruthlessly targeting him, often illegally. Of the three scrum-halves who toured, two had never previously been capped. The vital link between a dominant Lions pack and their three-quarters was not the area of overwhelming strength that it might have been.
Looking at the tour party from 40 years distance you wonder how the likes of Jim Renwick, Mike Slemen, Peter Dixon and Alan Lawson failed to make the cut. Nor does it seem possible that the Lions travelled south without a designated forwards coach, which forced Pontypool flanker Terry Cobner to step in. A great effort on Cobner’s part but hardly ideal.
Tour discipline wasn’t cracking, either. Occasional heavy drinking is part of the fun of touring and useful for team bonding but reading various autobiographies of those concerned over the years it’s obvious that as the tour made its sodden, mainly joyless way around the country, it began to reach epic proportions and threatened to get out of control.
So far so bad yet it was nearly very different. Fine margins. The Lions lost just once outside of the Tests – in a farcical mudbath against NZ Universities four days before the first Test – and with their muscular flinty pack to the fore they dealt with all the Provinces, a major achievement by any criteria.
But for an interception try they would almost certainly have won the first Test, they took the second Test and only a ridiculously random bounce of the ball deprived them of victory in the fourth Test by which time the outgunned All Blacks had been reduced to utilising three-man scrums.
Where did it all go wrong? The first Test was crucial and the Lions were 10-9 up just before half-time when they broke thrillingly from their half in the style of the ’71 team to create a three, or was it four, man overlap to the right.
It should have been a simple run-in but flanker Trevor Evans delayed his pass and All Blacks wing Grant Batty in best ‘Hail Mary’ fashion went for the s*** or bust intercept. Rather to his surprise it came off and the stocky Batty sprinted 60 yards to score by the posts.
In the stands John Dawes, the master of the perfectly-timed pass, buried his head in his hands. What should have been an 18-10 lead suddenly became a 16-12 deficit which was to be the final score. Ironically it was virtually Batty’s last meaningful contribution on a rugby field. He had been suffering from chronic knee injuries for the previous two or three years and his match saving/matching winning burst was the straw that broke the camel’s back. He announced his retirement the following week.
There had been a strange prelude to the first Test which perhaps illustrated the pressure John Dawes was under and how the sure touch he demonstrated as a player deserted him as a coach. On the Tuesday before the Test, the Lions has lost that game to New Zealand Universities 21-9 which among other things constituted the Lions first defeat in any game since the second Test against New Zealand at the same venue back in 1971. Disappointing, but in reality it merely demonstrated only that the Students were better water polo players and mud wrestlers.
Dawes, though, was raging and inexplicably ordered a savage ‘naughty boys’ session the next day for the entire party with a huge emphasis on running and fitness work. Not content with that another big physical session followed on the Thursday.
It made no sense. Only a couple of the team that played the Universities were involved in the Test, yet a couple of days before the most important game of the tour the entire squad being flogged senseless on the training paddock. If they weren’t fit enough after nine matches on tour, a couple of hurried beastings was going to make no difference. Worse still some of the Lions started the first Test heavy-legged. It was poor management every which way.
So that was the first Test. In the second Test at a muddy Christchurch, the Lions pack set about schooling the New Zealand pack, which they achieved, while they also won the mass fight which broke out after Ken Eveliegh hit Bennett with the most cynical and deliberate of late tackles. The 13-9 score line did not fully represent the Lions’ dominance but at least they were back on levels terms.
Preparations for the third Test in Dunedin were outwardly excellent with morale-boosting wins over the Maori, Waikato, New Zealand Juniors and Auckland seeing the team build a head of steam but on another boggy pitch – a helicopter was famously used to come in and hover on the morning of the game in an effort to disperse surface water – they lost 19-7 in disappointing fashion.
As ever the forwards threatened to take control but the backs could conjure up nothing to hurt the All Blacks and this was also the game when everything finally caught up with Bennett, the skipper missing six of his seven kicks at goal. It could and should have been so much closer.
The Lions were out on their feet by the fourth Test and were also suffering from injuries but such was their strength in depth that the introduction of Tony Neary and Jeff Squire into the back row if anything seemed to bolster their effort. Both had been in superb form in the Provincial games and yet again the Lions pack poured the hurt on, so much so that the All Blacks at one stage famously resorted to three-man scrums.
In one way that emphasised the Lions’ superiority but it also illustrates how the canny Kiwis come at problems and challenges and use the laws to their advantage. There was nothing prohibiting them opting for a three-man front row and so shocked and confused were the Lions that they were unable to take full advantage. It whipped up confusion and anarchy which was exactly what the All Blacks wanted.
Right to the bitter end the Lions’ bad luck continued. Leading 9-6 going into injury time, a harmless looking kick ahead from Bill Osborne bounced unpredictably to cause chaos in the Lions defence for Lawrie Knight to pounce and sprint 15 yards to clinch a possibly ill-deserved New Zealand win.
Let’s not be too hard on the Lions for their defeat in Suva on the way home just 48 hours after getting off the plane. It is just possible that one or two soothing ales had been taken after the tour party took off from rainy Auckland. In addition Fiji were no mean side in the mid-Seventies, especially on their own hard ground. Defeat in the scorching sun wasn’t too hard to take as they headed for the beach afterwards to cool down. As Fran Cotton famously observed: “Next time can we arrange a 12-week tour of Fiji with a one-week stopover in New Zealand.”
The 1977 tour was a raw, wounding experience. Very few of those Lions at the sharp end speak fondly of it in any way. In particular, it represented an all-time career low for Dawes who not only lost the series but managed to fall out with the majority of the British and New Zealand Press including a number of recent colleagues and long time friends such as Mervyn Davies.
Happily there was closure of sorts for Dawes nearly 30 years later. In 2005 Dawes toured New Zealand once more, this time as a member of the London Welsh male voice choir who provided pre-match entertainment before the Test matches and at many other functions. The smile was back and as Dawes belted out the great Welsh arias and hymns at grounds where he had known both glory and despair. What’s more he won the singing by a country mile.
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