British & Irish Lions History: Since 1888

British & Irish Lions History: Since 1888

1971 – The greatest ever Tour?

Fergus Slattery 71 tour

In 1971, the Lions got it right. After almost three-quarters of a century attempting to win a series in New Zealand they did it, and remain, to date, the only Lions side to ever do so.

The team captained by John Dawes, managed by Doug Smith and coached by Carwyn James, became history makers against an All Black side that had won all four Tests against the Lions in 1966 and only lost one game on their Tour of Europe a year later.

In 1971 the backbone of New Zealand’s great side remained – Colin Meads, Sid Going and Ian Kirkpatrick to name but three.

The Lions selectors made a bold decision in appointing James, who had never been asked to coach his native Wales. But the progressive, innovative thinking that had held him back at home proved the key to creating possible the greatest ever Lions side.

A huge pool of talent

But for all the talent James had at his disposal – including Gareth Edwards, Mervyn Davies, Gerald Davies, JPR Williams etc – one player still stood out.

Barry John attained superstar status on the Tour with the range of his kicking repertoire and the grace with which he ghosted through the walls of defence ranged against him. His 188 points remains a Lions record for one Tour.


This truly was the Tour on which the Prince became ‘the King’ and considering he had retired from the game altogether a year later – it was in front of an adoring All Black crowd that his legend was definitively secured.

Despite the opposition, the Lions only lost one game, after an initial defeat warm-up defeat to Queensland, on that entire Tour.

The first indication on Tour that these Lions might do something special came in the match against Wellington. A traditional powerhouse of the New Zealand game – Wellington were powerless in the face of the Lions onslaught as they destroyed their opponents 47-9.

John was given no undue protection by coach Carwyn James on the Tour – he played 17 games in all – but was thankfully rested for a brutal clash with Canterbury before the first Test.

They had to knuckle down to claim victory in that game – that saw both first-choice props Ray McLoughlin and Sandy Carmichael sent home with injury.

Test Series success

In came Sean Lynch and Ian ‘Mighty Mouse’ McLauchlan for the opening Test and – despite being under the cosh for long periods – they prevailed 9-3.

A chargedown try from McLauchlan and two penalties from John – who put on a tactical kicking masterclass – proved the difference.

They lost the second Test 22-12 but refused to panic, as they knew they had been way below their best.

All Black Captain Colin Meads in Lions dressing room offers congratulations on Lion's win to Willie McBride, Derek Quinell offers his hand

They proved as much in the third Test, in which they produced an outstanding performance controlled by the regal John, who contributed a try, two conversions and a drop goal to a 13-3 victory, with Gerald Davies scoring the visitors’ other try.

Tension peaked in the final Test, in which the Lions needed to avoid defeat to win the series. It wasn’t a classic, but the 14-14 draw was all the tourists needed.

A Peter Dixon try, two penalties and a conversion from the boot of John, topped by a 45-metre drop goal from JPR – the only one the full-back made in his career and allegedly owing much to a pre-match bet – proved sufficient for the Lions to make history.

Heroes back home

The Lions returned home blissfully unaware of the stir they had caused – but they had a better idea when the tourists won the BBC Sports Personality Team of the Year award that Christmas.

And if they were not legends before – they soon secured it with their on-air rendition of their Tour song – Sloop John B by the Beach Boys – that became a regular fixture at rugby clubs up and down the home nations.

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