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On This Day: The 1971 Lions kick off in style

On This Day: The 1971 Lions kick off in style

May 22, 1971 marked the start of one of the most famous Lions tours that has ever taken place – a series victory in New Zealand.

May 22, 1971 marked the start of one of the most famous Lions tours that has ever taken place – a series victory in New Zealand.

A warm-up defeat to Queensland en route to New Zealand – after which Queensland coach Des O’Connor had labelled them the ‘worst Lions ever’ – had led to many writing them off.

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But the Lions demonstrated their class as soon as they stepped onto New Zealand soil with a 25-3 win over a combined Counties/Thames Valley XV.

The tourists travelled around an hour south of Auckland to the brand new Pukekohe Stadium to record the first of ten straight wins in New Zealand ahead of the first Test.

Welcome to Pukekohe

The stadium had only been officially opened on March 27, 1971 and the Lions, captained on the day by Irish centre Mike Gibson, had the privilege of being the first international match that it hosted.

Welsh fly-half Barry John opened the scoring with a penalty in the 21st minute and he added a drop-goal and another penalty as the Lions took an early 9-0 lead.

Cardiff’s Gareth Edwards had the first try of the game five minutes before half-time as the Lions took a 12-point lead into the changing rooms at the break.

John, who obtained superstar status during the tour, had his third penalty in the 55th minute before Counties/Thames Valley eventually got on the board with a 65th minute Brian McCollum penalty.

But the Lions fought back with two more converted tries, through John Taylor and John Spencer – the latter will be tour manager for the 2017 tour to New Zealand – as they kicked off the New Zealand leg of their tour with a 25-3 victory.

The comfortable victory in Pukekohe, witness by around 20,000 fans, was just the first indication on tour that these Lions might do something special.

The start of something special

Further confirmation came when they travelled to Wellington and beat the traditional powerhouse of All Black Rugby 47-9.

The Lions, captained by John Dawes, managed by Doug Smith and coached by Carwyn James, went on to become the first Lions to win a Test series in New Zealand in almost three-quarters of a century of trying.

James was given full coaching responsibilities – the first time that an ‘assistant manager’ did not have to defer to the captain – while Smith handled the off-pitch administration.

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The Lions celebrate victory in the third Test 

Before the Lions had even kicked off in Pukekohe, Smith predict a 2-1 series win – a prophecy not looked on too kindly by his tourists who were already under pressure.

That his prediction proved to be spot on gives an indication of the air of destiny that surrounded these legends of 1971.

The tourists went on to win 9-3 in the opening Test in Dunedin before the All Blacks levelled the series with a 22-12 victory in Christchurch.

But the Lions regained their lead with a 13-3 win in Wellington before a spectacular 14-14 draw in Auckland saw Smith’s prediction come true.
 
 
22 MAY 1971
BRITISH & IRISH LIONS XV (12) 25, COUNTIES/THAMES VALLEY (0) 3 (The Stadium, Pukekohe)
 
British & Irish Lions XV: JPR Williams; John Spencer(T), Mike Gibson (capt), Chris Rea, Alastair Biggar; Barry John(2C/D/3P), Gareth Edwards(T); Ray McLoughlin, Frank Laidlaw, Sandy Carmichael; Gordon Brown, Delme Thomas; Derek Quinnell, John Taylor(T), Peter Dixon.
 
Bench: Mervyn Davies, David Duckham, Ray Hopkins, John Pullin.
 
Counties/Thames Valley: Bob Lendrum; Pat Yates, Brian Duggan, Brian McCollum(P), M.G. Davis; E.S. McRobbie, W.J. Cummings; F.T. Richards, B.W. Cochrane, John Hodge (capt); R.A. Clarke, Ken Macmillan; Brett Shirkey, S.T. Lagimaicolo, G.G. Walters.
 
Replacement used: Langford for Richards.
 
Scoring sequence: 21' John (P) 0-3, 24' John (D) 0-6, 26' John (P) 0-9, 35' Edwards (T) 0-12, 55' John (P) 0-15, 58' McCollum (P) 3-15, 65' Taylor (T) 3-18, John (C) 3-20, 68' Spencer (T) 3-23, John (C) 3-25.
 
Referee: Lex Gibson (New Zealand).
Attendance: 20,000.
 

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