And no man epitomised those tourists’ popularity more than Jack Kyle – the great Irish fly-half.
The Irishman – who led his country to the Five Nations Grand Slam in 1948 – played in 19 tour matches, including all six Tests on that tour, and afterwards was voted one of the top six players in the world by the NZ Rugby Almanac.
But there is one game that stands above the rest in cementing Kyle’s legacy: the Lions' first Test against New Zealand at Carisbrook on May 27 1950.
A less than ideal build-up
The Lions came into the clash having already been written off – they had suffered defeats to both Otago and Southland in the build-up.
So galling were those losses that some were questioning whether the Lions had even earned the right to play the All Blacks in a Test series.
But Kyle was having none of it and he led the hosts a merry dance at Carisbrook in one of the greatest Test matches the famous tourists ever played.
The game finished in a 9-9 draw and of the Lions' nine points, Kyle scored three himself with an exhilarating try and had a hand in all the others.
But despite his inspirational presence both on and off the field this was a man who made humility his business, as his daughter Justine reflects.
“My Dad was hilariously modest about everything – that wasn’t ideal for me trying to write a book! His memory was actually very good but he didn’t like saying too much about himself,” said Justine, who has told Kyle's story through ‘Conversations with My Father: Jack Kyle’ .
“When I asked dad: ‘What do you think was the stand-out moment of your career in terms of rugby?', he always said that he never again reached the heights of what he achieved in New Zealand with the Lions."
Kyle and company on the charge
The Queen's University man created a try for Ken Jones with an accurate punt that proved too cute for the great All Blacks full-back Bob Scott to deal with and also put in the long kick that yielded a penalty converted by John Robins.
But it was his own try that stood out – counter-attacking from a poor kick and swerving his way over the line for a truly iconic Lions moment.
The New Zealand Post remembered it thus:
“He saw a gap, he slipped through in a twinkle, he veered clear of the rack-like Scott with speed that left the latter seemingly immobile, and when his change of direction put him within Cherrington’s grasp, he combined a sinuous wriggle with such spirited determination that he was able to plant the ball over the line.”
That should have proved the difference between the two sides but Ron Elvidge’s late try sealed a draw for the hosts in the last minute.
But there was no doubting the individual winner of that draw – The Evening Post in New Zealand remarked:
“It is doubtful whether one player will live longer in the memories of those who saw the 1950 Carisbrook Test than Kyle. He scored a dazzling try which will always hold a place on Carisbrook’s mythical rugby honours board.”
People flocked to see the Lions wherever they went
That was the only Test that the Lions managed to earn parity with the All Blacks – the next three were all defeats but centre Bleddyn Williams – who dovetailed with Kyle so well – said:
“We were pleased to have held the All Blacks in the first Test, when our forwards showed their claws. What a pity the forwards did not play again with the same tigerish tenacity. It was as if they had burnt themselves out in that one game.”
A daughter remembers
The tour would be – in Kyle's words – the pinnacle of his career and daughter Justine notes that it is quite a statement considering all he achieved.
“The tries he scored in that first Test was most definitely what he considered the most important tries of his career," she said.
“And when you consider that he won the Grand Slam with Ireland that was amazing to hear.
“But the Lions was something special and my father understood the history and the honour of being selected.
“Then to do it against New Zealand, considered the greatest rugby nation in the world, to prove himself there meant so much to him.”
27 MAY 1950
BRITISH & IRISH LIONS (3) 9, NEW ZEALAND (0) 9 (Carisbrook, Dunedin)
British & Irish Lions: Billy Cleaver; Ken Jones(T), Jack Matthews, Ivor Preece, Ranald Macdonald; Jackie Kyle(T), Gus Black; John Robins(P), Karl Mullen (capt), Tom Clifford; Don Hayward, Roy John; Bob Evans, Bill McKay, Peter Kininmonth.
New Zealand: Bob Scott(P); Bill Meates, Roy Roper(T), Ron Elvidge (capt)(T), Brownie Cherrington; George Beatty, Vince Bevan; Johnny Simpson, Arthur Hughes, Kevin Skinner; Tiny White, Lester Harvey; Pat Crowley, Jack McNab, Peter Johnstone.
Scoring sequence: Robins J.D. (P) 0-3, Kyle J.W. (T) 0-6, Jones K.J. (T) 0-9, 61' Scott R.W.H. (P) 3-9, 73' Elvidge R.R. (T) 6-9, Roper R.A. (T) 9-9.
Referee: Snowy Tindill (New Zealand).
Imagery courtesy of Justine Kyle McGrath. Justine Kyle McGrath is the author of Conversations With My Father: Jack Kyle (published by Hachette Books Ireland). Jack tells Justine the details of his remarkable life, both as an International rugby player for Ireland and The British and Irish Lions, and as a surgeon who spent 34 and a half years working in Zambia.