British & Irish Lions History: Since 1888

British & Irish Lions History: Since 1888

1950-1968 – Growing the game after WWII

The 1950s and 60s were mainly anything but swinging for the Lions. But, as the decade came to its close, they finally began to regain a little of their rhythm, on and off the pitch.

1950 – Touring returns after 12-year break


As the world rebuilt after World War II, so too were the Lions swept up in the mood of transformation.

Once upon a time the red jersey, white shorts, and blue socks with a green turnover were not a staple of a Lions Tour but in 1950, that combination became an institution that has remained untouched.

It was also the year in which the Lions moniker was officially claimed as their own and, in another first, every player who toured New Zealand and Australia was an international for one of the four home countries.

One thing that remained constant was the close nature of The Lions Test series with all four of the Tests against New Zealand being incredibly hard fought.

A Test series on a knife edge

But for a late try from Ron Elvidge, the Lions would have won the first Test.

Lewis Jones’ pace saw him score in the corner after Jack Kyle had scored a superb breakaway try of his own, to leave the score standing at 9-3 deep in the second half.

Bob Scott nudged New Zealand back into contention before inside centre Elvidge scraped a 9-9 draw.

In Christchurch a fortnight later, New Zealand sealed an 8-0 win against a Lions side severely hampered by the loss of inspirational loose forward Bill McKay to a broken nose and concussion.


The third Test was again an incredibly close-run thing and the Lions, shorn of Jones and captain Mullen, led through a John Robins penalty at the half only to suffer another turnaround by 6-3.

In the fourth and final Test, the Lions nearly mounted a comeback themselves. The All Blacks carried an 11-3 lead early in the second half before the tourists showed their claws.

From a scrum on their own line, the Lions marched up the field before Lewis Jones intercepted a Kyle pass intended for Williams.

It seemed to catch friend and foe alike off-guard, but Jones found his namesake Ken who then jinked his way to one of the best tries ever seen at Eden Park.

Williams ever so nearly ended the Test series on a high note, but the stand-in skipper was brought down by Peter Henderson mere inches from the line – bringing to an end one of the truly great Lions clashes.


A glorious finish

After the completion of that epic adventure, the Lions travelled to Australia where they made light work of the Test team.

Lewis Jones scored 16 points – including a 50-yard drop-goal – as Australia were swiftly dispatched 19-6 in the first Test at the Gabba.

The Lions were irresistible in the second Test as well, Jimmy Nelson scoring a try-double in a 24-3 triumph in front of an SCG crowd of 25,000.

After three weeks they were finally back on the ship, though did stretch their legs with a game against Ceylon – now Sri Lanka – while travelling back through the Suez Canal.

1955 – An epic in Africa


The 1955 Lions were the first to travel by air and although they drew the four Test series against South Africa 2-2, they certainly flew into the hearts of all who met them.

The decision to travel by plane – although it was a propeller plane rather than a jet engine – shortened the journey to South Africa by a month.

In all it took 36 hours with a number of stop offs in Zurich, Rome, Cairo, Khartoum, Nairobi, Entebbe and finally Johnannesburg.

A classic series

Such was the expectation of the contest that home newspaper the Rand Daily Mail commandeered the side led by Ireland’s Robin Thompson as “the greatest team ever to visit South Africa” in a headline. That was before a game was even played.

An epic quartet of Test matches, culminating in a 2-2 draw in South Africa, was understandably labelled as the ultimate Tour. For the first time since the turn of the century, the Lions avoided defeat in Africa.

A determined series, 25 matches in all, produced the style of rugby attracting the jam-packed home fans, endearing their visitors for an almighty welcome from the moment they touched down.

South Africa had not lost a Test series for nearly 60 years, yet were forced to settle for a shared series, still to date the only tied Tour involving the Lions.

More than 95,000 packed into Ellis Park, a then world record for a rugby union international, as the Lions edged a nail-biter 23-22.

Trailing 11-8 at half-time, the Lions lost Reg Higgins through injury, forced into playing with 14 men for large parts of the second half.

But Morgan’s jinking run set them on their way before O’Reilly and a fortuitous bounce helped Greenwood touch down a fifth try for the visitors, four of which were converted by Scotland’s Angus Cameron.

But South Africa roared back, fighting to within one point before full-back Jack van der Schyff stepped up for one of the most famous kicks in union history. It slipped wide, sending the Lions into euphoria and a 1-0 lead.

The second Test was not quite so narrow, as the hosts turned on the style a fortnight later in Cape Town to win 25-9.

All square with two to play

In the third Test, Butterfield kicked a first-half drop-goal – which he later claimed to be the only drop-goal in his career – while Cameron’s penalty put the tourists 6-0 to the good early in the second half.

Centre Butterfield also crossed for the only try of the game, the one that put the Lions a score clear, a lead they never relinquished as they left Loftus Versfeld 9-6 victors, 2-1 up with one to play.

The Lions lost the final Test in Port Elizabeth 22-8.

1959 – Winning hearts and minds


They may not have returned from New Zealand with the Test series victory they craved – but in the battle for the hearts and minds of the Kiwi public the 1959 British & Irish Lions were serial winners.

Led by manager Alf Wilson and captained by Ireland hooker Ronnie Dawson – the Lions brand of attacking rugby caught the eye throughout the Tour that began in Australia.

They scored more points than any other Lions team – 842 in 33 games, 25 of which were in New Zealand, six in Australia and two in Canada.

Tony O’Reilly comes of age

The chief architects of this fast-paced style were their two flying wingers. Tony O’Reilly scored 22 tries on the Tour, 17 of which came in New Zealand for a Lions record that stands to this day, while Peter Jackson got 19 of his own out of a Lions total that reached a mammoth 165.

Over 800,000 fans in total attended the 25 games played in the land of the long white cloud – approximately a third of the entire population.

That Lions party had the experience of six tourists from 1955 – O’Reilly, Jeff Butterfield and Dickie Jeeps in the backs, while Bryn Meredith, Hugh McLeod and Rhys Williams endured among the forwards – further experience was offered by 1950 tourist Malcolm Thomas.

Success in Australia

The Tour begun in Australia with a comfortable 53-18 win over Victoria, and the tourists won five of their six provincial matches.

In the Tests against the Wallabies the Lions were convincing winners, with O’Reilly and Ken Smith scoring a try apiece in the 17-6 victory in Brisbane in the first Test.

A week later the scoreline was even more emphatic, as they ran in five tries to none in a 24-3 success.

Once again O’Reilly got on the scoresheet, but it was Malcolm Price who was the star with two tries, while Risman and Dawson got the others.

Don Clarke’s world record

The touring squad were undone by the boot of Don Clarke against the All Blacks.

In all the Lions spent three months in New Zealand and played 25 matches, winning 20 and losing five – in addition to their three Test defeats they also lost to Otago and Canterbury.

The 3-1 Test series defeat was a major blow for the Lions.

The first Test, under modern scoring rules, would have been a win for the Lions but with tries only counting for three points back then they suffered a cruel defeat.


In typical style the tourists scored four tries to the All Blacks’ none but lost by a single point as New Zealand full-back Clarke kicked six penalties, the last to win the game just two minutes from time.

For the Lions, Price notched a double for the second successive Test, with O’Reilly and Jackson also crossing, but it wasn’t quite enough.

An injury-hit Lions side lost the second Test and again it was Clarke who punished them – albeit this time with a spectacular try that sealed an 11-8 win.

Trailing heading into the dying minutes, Clarke popped up for the match-winning score, adding the conversion to rub salt into the wounds.

The powerful New Zealand pack dominated in a 22-8 victory in the third Test but the fourth and final game sent the Lions home with a deserved win.

The tourists won 9-6 and, fittingly, by three tries to nil. The try-scorers were their three most outstanding backs: Jackson, O’Reilly and Risman.

Eden Park is often the venue for the final Test of a Lions series and to this day the 1959 Lions remain the only side to claim a win there.

Still, the Tour was not yet over, the Lions stopped off on their way back for two matches in Canada, beating British Columbia and then Eastern Canada in successive games.

1962 – Lions go toe to toe with South Africa


Arthur Smith’s 1962 British & Irish Lions needed to make a statement.

Avril Malan’s touring Springbok side lost just once on their 1960-61 European Tour – 6-0 to the Barbarians at Cardiff Arms Park – and the Lions selectors knew that only a pack of formidable size could challenge the confrontational South Africans.

Smith’s forwards were the largest to ever leave Britain and boasted six forwards over 15 stone more than the 1955 Tour to South Africa.

Among them was a young Willie John McBride – on the first of his five Tours – and joined by fellow behemoths Keith Rowlands, Mike Campbell-Lamerton, Peter Wright, Kingsley Jones and Syd Millar.

Impressive pack not quite enough

Though the Lions lost the four-Test series 3-0, their immense pack pushed a South African eight bolstered by legendary prop Mof Myburgh, on his Test debut, to the limit in three attritional tests.

Johnny Gainsford set alight Ellis Park in the first Test after collecting a sharp Mannetjies Roux pass to race over in the corner before Ken Jones equalised with a spectacular score of his own with ten minutes left in the game.

John Wilcox gathered a Springbok kick and though he spilled the ball in contact, Gordon Waddell snaffled the loose ball and fed the Welsh centre, who scythed through the Springbok defence and galloped 60 metres to score. Captain Smith could not convert and the Test was drawn.

Only a Keith Oxlee penalty with five minutes remaining could down the Lions at Kings Park, Durban in the second Test with Rowlands being denied a last-minute try.

Crowds flock to Cape Town

Newlands saw its largest ever crowd for a highly anticipated third Test – 54,843 were packed inside the Cape Town stadium, with a reported 4,000 more locked outside.

Hooker Bryn Meredith took his tally to a Welsh record 41 Lions’ games, including eight Tests by the end of the Tour, and helped Smith’s men to set-piece dominance.

The Springboks though came from 3-0 down to triumph 8-3, with Oxlee scoring every Bok point for the second week running.

It was only in the fourth when, deprived of Smith’s leadership due to injury, the Lions capitulated to a 34-14 loss in front of a capacity crowd in Bloemfontein.

Springbok and Natal outside-half Oxlee was exceptional again and grabbed a Test record 16 points in another match-winning performance.

The Lions did end on a positive note, with an 11-try 50-0 win against ‘East Africa’ in Nairobi.

1966 – Lions in New Zealand

NZ score a try in the first Test of the 1966 tourFive years before Lions rugby’s high point in New Zealand they were led by Mike Campbell-Lamerton, who had served as a captain in the Army on Tours to Korea and Kenya.

The Lions had star quality in their backline in the shape of Newport stand-off David Watkins and Cambridge University centre Mike Gibson, while the pack boasted players of the class of Willie John McBride, Brian Price, Jim Telfer, Ray McLoughlin, Ronnie Lamont and Noel Murphy.

For the first time, the tourists not only had a manager, Irishman Des O’Brien, who had played both rugby and football for his country, but a coach too, Welshman John Robins.

Lions on form in Australia

The Tour, though, began in Australia and Lions were in good form. Barring a 6-6 draw against New South Wales each state side was beaten, and a Combined Country XV was also edged past 6-3.

Three weeks after their first Tour game, the Lions downed Australia 11-8 in the first Test in Sydney thanks to Ireland forward McLoughlin getting them out of jail in a comeback victory.

The second Test proved far easier, the tourists running out 31-0 victors following a five-try blitz in the second half.

The scoreline is the highest ever winning margin in a Lions test and came courtesy of a double from Ken Jones as well as tries from Murphy, Dewi Bebb and Watkins.

It was the first time since 1904 that the Lions had emerged unbeaten from a Tour to Australia and, in some quarters, the squad was being talked up as potentially among the very best.

British Lions lose the first Test in Dunedin 20-3

New Zealand halt Lions momentum

Unfortunately, once the touring party made its way to New Zealand, the aforementioned star quality on the teamsheet did not produce stellar results on the pitch and their bubble was immediately burst.

The Lions lost their first Tour match 14-8 to Southland and went on to be defeated in three of the first five.

The tourists walked straight into a golden age of New Zealand rugby, with the All Blacks in the midst of the unbeaten reign of coach Fred Allen and with the likes of Ken Gray, Waka Nathan, Brian Lochore and Chris Laidlaw.

Test preparations were also not helped by a training session at Queenstown airport being disrupted because the grass they had been allocated turned out to be part of the runway – meaning the session was delayed as players ran for cover each time a plane wanted to take off or land.

New tactics in the First Test

By the time the first Test came around the Lions’ record had improved somewhat to five wins, three losses and a draw.

The Lions went down 20-3 in Dunedin as they failed to cope with the Kiwi’s new tactic of centres deliberately setting up rucks to allow colleagues to recycle the ball – creating the ‘phase’ style of rugby we all know so well now.

Three weeks on and five wins added to the tally, the Lions appeared to have rallied, so much so that they led at half time of the second Test.

Campbell-Lamerton had dropped himself for the match in Wellington, replaced by Delme Thomas with Pask taking the captaincy, but despite this move the Kiwis fought back in the second half to win 16-12.

It could have been so different though had Thomas’ pass after a 50-metre break not gone astray, within yards of the line, in the dying minutes.

Third Test decides the series

Four more punishing Tour matches were staged between the second and third Test with the Lions winning two and drawing one, but things did not improve when it came to the crunch in Christchurch.

The sides were level at 6-6 after 40 minutes but the All Blacks eased to a 19-6 victory in the second half, winning the third Test and with it, the series.

The Lions headed into the fourth and final Test, at Auckland’s iconic Eden Park, on the back of another three Tour victories and fired up to avoid a series whitewash.

The All Blacks had their own bit of history for extra motivation too, having never won every test against a touring side before.

Despite Colin McFadyean and Sandy Hinshelwood crossing for tries in quick succession, the Lions trailed 8-10 at half time and the All Blacks eventually ran out 24-11 victors.

At the end of a five-month trip, and having already played 33 games, the tourists stopped off in Canada on their way home for some missionary work and two final games.

The Tour may have been a low point for the Lions but five members of the party would have the last laugh; Mike Gibson, Frank Laidlaw, Willie John McBride and Delme Thomas all returning four years later for the greatest triumph in Lions history.

1968 – Lessons learnt for 1971 success


Tom Kiernan’s 1968 tourists may have lost the Test series against South Africa 3-0 with one match drawn, but they re-established the Lions spirit and took the first steps towards the successes of the 1970s.

Building blocks laid

The squad contained such attacking talents as Gareth Edwards, Barry John, Mike Gibson and Gerald Davies, many of whom would go on to play key parts in the Lions coming successes.

But the party was ravaged by injury and Edwards, John, Gibson and Davies never appeared in a Test team together, with John’s Tour being ended by a broken collarbone suffered early in the opening international.

The Springbok pack meanwhile contained such greats as Jan Ellis, Tommy Bedford and Piet Greyling in the back row and Frik du Preez at lock.

A historic injury replacement

Gibson became the Lions, and international rugby’s, first replacement in that game when he came onto the field to win what was to be the first of his 12 Test appearances for the Lions on five Tours.

Despite the injuries, the squad still produced one of the Lions’ best provincial records in South Africa.

Kiernan’s magical boot

Although the Lions drew the second Test 6-6 and lost the first and third both by a mere five points, their hosts scored eight tries to one over the four matches, winning the first international 25-20, the third 11-6 and the fourth 19-6.

Only Kiernan’s boot kept the Lions within touching distance as the Irish full-back thumped over a record 35 points in the Tests to account for all but three of his team’s total.

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