1 Jun 2017

The All Black Lion tamers: A special rivalry

4:37 pm on 1 June 2017

In fact of their 11 tours to New Zealand only one - 1971 - can go down as victorious.

With the Lions about to kick of their 2017 venture rugby rugby reporter Joe Porter reflected with former Lions and All Black legends about their memorable history.

The British and Irish Lions touch down in Auckland today to begin the next chapter in one of rugby's greatest rivalries.

Series-winning try. Laurie Knight scores in the fourth test v Lions, 1977. Disconsolate Lions skipper is Phil Bennett.

Series-winning try. Laurie Knight scores in the fourth test against the Lions, 1977. The disconsolate Lions skipper is Phil Bennett. Photo: PHOTOSPORT

Since playing their first test against the All Blacks in 1904, the Lions have managed only one series win here, in 1971, yet the tours have been of the most memorable in rugby history.

In the 1977 tour, Laurie Knight scored a late try in the final test to rob the Lions of a series draw, pushing the All Blacks to a Lions 3 -1 series win.

Former Lions winger JJ Williams, the second highest try-scorer in Lions history, said that loss would haunt him forever.

"You think that's the one that got away how did they beat us? But that's what the All Blacks always do.

"I've played against them as a Lion and many times for Wales against them in Cardiff and they've always just beat us.

"That's what makes the All Blacks so different from any other rugby team in the world, that inherent ability to pull it out of the fire when they need it most."

The Lions' JJ Williams touches down for a try v the All Blacks, 1977 Lions tour of New Zealand.

The Lions' JJ Williams touches down for a try v the All Blacks, 1977 Lions tour of New Zealand. Photo: PHOTOSPORT

Referee Alan Hosie has ordered Graeme Higginson off. Phil Bennett intervenes. Graham Mourie in middle.

Referee Alan Hosie has ordered Graeme Higginson off. Phil Bennett intervenes. Graham Mourie in middle. Photo: PHOTOSPORT

Phil Bennett, the great Welsh first-five who captained the 1977 Lions in New Zealand, believes the team's solitary 1971 series win ranks as one of rugby's greatest feats.

For him, there's nothing more special than beating the All Blacks.

"People say to me it must be your grand slams with Wales, or your 1974 invincibles Lions tour to South Africa, that are the highlights of your career.

"But there's only one highlight of my career.

"I live in the same town which I grew up in as a small boy, Llanelli, the home of the Scarlets rugby club, and our greatest moment came in 1972, captained by Delme Thomas who was three times a Lion.

"We beat the All Blacks, captained by the great Ian Kirkpatrick, and we beat them 9-3 at Stradey Park.

"The legend goes - and I know it's a true story - the pubs were drunk dry by 8 o'clock, there wasn't a drop of beer left in the whole town. That's how much it meant to beat the All Blacks."

Williams shares the same sentiments about beating the All Blacks.

He starred in arguably the Lions most famous tour, the 1974 trip to South Africa, where the Lions team dubbed The Invincibles won 21 of their 22 games.

Williams describes that series as a watershed win against one of the world's best teams, but he still rates New Zealand as the toughest tour in rugby.

"To go to New Zealand we knew it was a step up again. It's an incredible place to tour because whatever games you play, and in those days we were playing 25 odd games, no game is easy.

"Even on a Wednesday up country somewhere, where you expect to run riot, they would always give you a physical game because there's no such thing as a poor New Zealand rugby player.

"It's always difficult, it's the hardest tour you can go on, it's the hardest tour for any Lion."

He believes that's largely due to New Zealand's obsession with the national sport.

"What's so difficult about touring New Zealand is that there's no escape ... on and off the field.

Lions players including Fran Cotton. First test, Wellington, 1977 Lions tour.

A mud-covered Fran Cotton (centre) in the first test, Wellington, 1977 Lions tour. Photo: PHOTOSPORT

"If you go into a shop the waitress there will say 'look JJ you can't kick off your left foot' or something like that. [The New Zealand public] are so knowledgeable on the game.

"We'd played in game in Wellington, it was a shockingly wet game and Fran Cotton, the famous English prop, there was a huge photograph of him on the Sunday newspaper covered in mud - and he's not the best looking old guy anyway - he's covered in mud and the headline was 'Ladies lock up your children this man is in town'.

"Franny was going 'I cannot believe what they've just done' but I said 'this is New Zealand, there's no escape out here matey'.

"And that's what it was - there's pressure on and off the field."

1977, British and Irish Lions tour to New Zealand. All Blacks Graham Mourie, Doug Rollerson.

Graham Mourie and Doug Rollerson playing during the 1977 Lions tour. Photo: PHOTOSPORT

Former All Black flanker Graham Mourie says their relationship with the Lions was highly competitive but jovial.

At the Dunedin test during the 1977 Lions tour, he recalled, the All Blacks had a scrum about 10 metres out from the Lions tryline, and the Lions pushed it back back about five or six metres.

"Fran Cotton came out of the scrum and said to [All Blacks prop] Brad Johnstone 'well Brad we absolutely stuffed you that time lad'.

"Brad was a pretty honest sort of a bloke and Brad said 'yeah ya did Fran, but look, we've just scored' and we all burst out laughing - including Fran."

Ian Kirkpatrick, New Zealand All Blacks v British and Irish Lions, Lions tour to New Zealand, 1977.

Ian Kirkpatrick outrunning Lions players in the 1977 tour. Photo: PHOTOSPORT

The All Blacks flanker in that game, Ian Kirkpatrick, said Cotton was a man you couldn't forget.

In one match, Kirkpatrick said, he refused to be the replacement for injured prop Billy Bush, because he would have had to go up against Cotton - so No 8 Laurie Knight volunteered to go into the front row instead.

"And I thought to myself 'you silly bugger' - we'll see what happens here.

"Of course as soon as we made contact his [Knight's] feet left the ground and the scrum collapsed.

"Fran Cotton said to him 'laddy it would help if you kept your feet on the ground', we were rolling round laughing."

Ireland and Lions prop Moss Keane (L) after the Munster victory over the All Blacks. 1978.

Ireland and Lions prop Moss Keane (L) after the Munster victory over the All Blacks. 1978. Photo: PHOTOSPORT

"Mourie said the banter was sometimes lost in translation.

"Lions prop Moss Keane was another charismatic guy, but the issue with Moss was always understanding him, because he had such a broad Irish accent.

"I was in a lift with All Black lock Frank Oliver and Moss, and Moss was talking away, and Frank said 'Moss can you slow down a bit I can't understand what you're saying' and Moss rather promptly replied 'oh that's good Frank that's good but tell me, am I talking to quickly or are you listening to slowly'."

There'll be nothing slow about this year's tour; the Lions play 10 matches in just over a month, including three tests against the All Blacks.

The tour kicks off on Saturday night with a game against the New Zealand Provincial Barbarians in Whangarei.

Ian Kirkpatrick and Billy Bush in action during the 2nd rugby union test match between the All Blacks and British & Irish Lions, Christchurch, 1977.

Ian Kirkpatrick and Billy Bush in action during the 2nd rugby union test match between the All Blacks and British & Irish Lions, Christchurch, Photo: PHOTOSPORT

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