This piece follows on from my previous blogs on the warm-up matches, first Test, and second Test of the British and Irish Lions tour of New Zealand in 1983:
Sifting through the ashes
After the demoralising 9-0 defeat in the second Test in Wellington, the Lions tour moved on to Waitangi in the Bay of Islands, with the players taking a much needed rest before the next fixture against North Auckland. In the week leading up to the match there was a lot of soul searching within the Lions camp, with manager Willie John McBride speaking in a determined fashion regarding the rest of the tour. "The pressure is on and it takes strong men to salvage a tour when you are that deep in trouble."
There could be no escaping the fact that the awesome All Blacks display in the second Test may well have left some scars amongst the Lions squad. "I can't remember such a devastating forty minutes of forward power against us," McBride revealed. "We were just left chasing. That was a near perfect display and I can't see them playing quite so well in the rest of the series." McBride tried his best to emphasise that the tour was not over, and the players held some forthright meetings to discuss the way forward. But there was obviously a huge mountain to climb, and the tour was on a knife edge.
The cracks begin to appear
Inevitably as the tour progressed, more and more injuries hit the squad. Rob Norster sprained ligaments in his back during the second Test, and was ruled out for two to three weeks. Donal Lenihan, who was named in the original squad but had been ruled out with a hernia, was called up as Norster's replacement, with fellow countryman Gerry McLoughlin joining him, after Ian Stephens knee injury ended his tour. Nigel Melville damaged neck ligaments after being flattened by a shoulder charge/punch (depending on which side of the fence you sat) in the North Auckland match, leading to a call-up for England's Steve Smith.
The North Auckland match was a lively affair. England lock Steve Bainbridge became involved in controversy, when his "Liverpool kiss", as the papers put it, left Alastair Robinson with blood streaming down his face, and the New Zealand press went to town. Coach Jim Telfer said he disapproved of the incident and would talk to Bainbridge, and although McBride agreed in principle, he chose this time to get a few things off his chest. "We are always made out as the aggressors here. The New Zealand media are running the game of rugby. I have a pile of cuttings and headlines — they are shocking."
The 21-12 win over North Auckland, with tries from Rob Ackerman and Jim Calder, saw John Rutherford stake a claim for a place in the third Test team, playing as a centre rather than in his usual fly half position. But injuries to Melville and Jeff Squire did little to help the morale of the squad. Neither did an agonising 22-20 defeat to Canterbury four days before the third Test, full back Hugo MacNeill missing five out of seven kicks, including a last minute conversion attempt that would have at least seen a draw salvaged from the game.
As the tour threatened to go off the rails, rumours circulated that many of the players were homesick, an accusation that was quickly refuted by skipper Ciaran Fitzgerald, lock Maurice Colclough, and McBride. "This is the most closely knit party because they have had to put up with so much abuse, so many knocks," McBride stated in defence of his squad. Colclough backed up this opinion. "We are not at each other's throats, nor are we homesick. The spirit is good and there is a mood of confidence about this Test."
As with any team struggling in a series, changes were inevitable after the previous international, with the Lions selectors bringing in four new faces. Gwyn Evans had been selected as a winger when the squad was announced, but his versatility enabled him to replace MacNeill at full back. As predicted, Rutherford came in to form a midfield partnership with Michael Kiernan. And Steve Bainbridge and Jim Calder replaced Norster and John O'Driscoll respectively, becoming the 12th and 13th different players to play in the pack during the internationals so far.
"This is a team picked to play positive, attack-minded 15-man rugby," Telfer boldly announced, although many felt the more attacking line-up had come two Tests too late. "Rutherford plays because he is such a good footballer and adds an extra dimension to back play." Yet when snow and rain hit Dunedin and flooded the Carisbrook pitch before the Test, it appeared as if the chances of a free flowing and fast game of rugby had evaporated.
In contrast, New Zealand were able to name an unchanged XV, Mark Shaw shaking off a bout of influenza in time to take his place in the back row. Consistency of selection and the performance at Wellington indicated that the Lions would need to pull off a major shock to stay in the series. "If the All Blacks play as well as they did in the second half at Wellington, it will be very difficult," Fitzgerald said, before indicating that his team had the character to upset the form book.
Don Cameron, writing in The Times felt the Lions had a slight chance if Ollie Campbell could dictate the play more. But he laid out the long and short of it in the last sentence of his Test match preview. "If they win they will still have a chance of a heroic comeback in the series. If they lose they will become nonentities."
New Zealand: Hewson, Wilson, Pokere, Taylor, Fraser, Smith, Loveridge; Ashworth, Dalton, Knight, Whetton, Haden, Shaw, Hobbs, Mexted
Lions: Evans (W), Carleton (E), Kiernan (I), Rutherford (S), Baird (S), Campbell (I), Laidlaw (S); Jones (W), Fitzgerald (I), Price (W), Colclough (E), Bainbridge (E), Calder (S), Winterbottom (E), Paxton (S)
The Lions would again perform admirably, putting in their best display, and scoring their first international tries of the series. Yet the 15-8 loss at Dunedin was purely a case of coming second best to a clearly superior side. Many players came out of the match with enormous credit - Bainbridge, Peter Winterbottom, Calder, and Iain Paxton - but a disciplined and tactically superior All Blacks outfit simply smothered the Lions. There was no disgrace in defeat.
A few minutes into the match, Roger Baird and the Lions were at least able to celebrate a couple of notable firsts; Baird's first (and only) try in international rugby, and the Lions' opening try of the series. It was not a score of particular beauty, yet as Baird slid through the rain and the mud to score in the corner, the Lions received an early boost in their quest to get back into the series. Alas, Campbell could not slot over the conversion, and two Allan Hewson penalties put New Zealand 6-4 up at the break.
Shortly into the second half came a rare highlight of the tour. At last the Lions' backs were able to demonstrate their attacking ability, with Laidlaw, Campbell, Kiernan, Rutherford, Baird, and Evans combining to put Rutherford in for a wonderful try. Unfortunately Campbell would again miss his conversion, but after scoring what was later described as "the try of the series" by New Zealand coach Bryce Rope, the Lions were 8-6 ahead and in a decent position to test the All Blacks resolve.
Sadly this was as good as it got for the visitors. Slowly but surely, the All Blacks started to turn the screw, as the Lions scrummaging began to creek. Laidlaw struggled under the pressure; Campbell was described as a "tired and nervous fox" by Cameron; Steve Pokere, moved to fly half when Arthur Stone came on for the injured Wayne Smith, began to push the Lions back with some fine kicking. The writing was on the wall.
New Zealand's dominance resulted in a try for winger Stu Wilson - a record equalling 16th try for his country - after the excellent Dave Loveridge had set him up. Hewson's conversion put New Zealand 12-8 in front, and from this point on the match turned into a frustrating experience for the Lions. Cameron noted that the Lions became penned in their own 22 for the final quarter of the match, "trapped by the black wave" and "enfolded by the vast black blanket". There was simply no escape.
Campbell's kicking offered no hope of relieving the pressure, far too deep and literally playing into the hands of full back Hewson. The Irish fly half was not even given the opportunity to eat into the All Blacks' lead, the fine discipline shown by the hosts crushing any hope. When Hewson slotted over a penalty with three minutes remaining, the final nail had been hammered into the Lions' coffin. The 15-8 defeat confirmed that the Lions were now heading towards a whitewash in the series.
"But at the very least, the Lions went down with a hearty growl, and certainly not a tired whimper," Cameron wrote in his match summary, and he was not alone in his praise of the Lions display. The Daily Mirror's Chris Lander pointed out that the players had "performed with total commitment and courage", with Tony Bodley of the Daily Express stating that "the Lions lost with dignity", and indicated that had the team performed to a similar standard in the first Test then they would have gone 1-0 up in the series.
Yet Bodley was also critical of the tour. "The Lions stumbled on (after the Christchurch Test) without a recognisable strategy, and the weeks of muddle were magnified by a list of crippling injuries. It is a damning indictment that none of the three Test teams had played together previously." Soon attention would move to possible changes for the next Test, with Laidlaw and Campbell particularly vulnerable.
"The lack of control at half-back does worry me, especially from the scrum," Telfer admitted after the Dunedin defeat, with winger John Carleton openly backing the claims of Rutherford. "I think John Rutherford is the best fly half and should play the final Test," although the man under the greatest scrutiny was still the Lions' skipper. "If it is the wish of my fellow selectors, the manager, and the coach, I would move over as captain or player," Fitzgerald said when grilled by the press. "But I would like to see the job through, I'm not a man who quits in life or rugby."
English football fans can often be accused of banging on about 1966 ad nauseam. But as the Lions went 3-0 down in the series, many a reference was made to the 1966 whitewash in New Zealand. Sadly, Messrs Telfer and McBride had been on that tour, and the pair were now staring another 4-0 thrashing in the face. With just two weeks left on tour, the tired Lions party could be forgiven for thinking about the plane home. But before then would come a chastening experience in Auckland that would provide a cruel end to the 1983 British and Irish Lions tour of New Zealand.