Wednesday, 5 July 2017

1983: New Zealand v Lions Fourth Test

This piece follows on from my previous blogs on the warm-up matches, first, second, and third Tests of the British and Irish Lions tour of New Zealand in 1983:

The walking wounded

The conclusion of the 1983 Lions tour to New Zealand was never going to be easy for the visitors. Trailing 3-0 in the series, and psychologically damaged after narrow defeats in the previous two Tests, slowly but surely the physical impact of such a demanding itinerary became apparent. Flanker Jim Calder was ruled out of the rest of the tour with a broken thumb, and Bob Norster would play no further part after straining his back during the second Test. Unfortunately, the hits just kept on coming.

A 25-19 win over Hawke's Bay was less than impressive from a playing point of view - more of which later - and the mood in the camp was hardly improved when a pelvic injury suffered by John Beattie, and Dusty Hare's dislocated shoulder, ruled both players out of the remaining matches. Wales' Eddie Butler flew out to replace Beattie - the seventh replacement in the squad, if you count Steve Bainbridge's inclusion at the expense of Donal Lenihan before the players had departed - and Butler would make an impact, although not in a conventional sense.

After another spluttering win over the Counties, Butler, Gerry McLoughlin, and Colin Deans were attacked by some fans as they jogged around the pitch, Deans struck to the ground before his team-mates intervened. Manager Willie John McBride called for a drinking ban amongst spectators (good luck with that), but after the 25-16 win, inspired by the boot of Ollie Campbell, he was given yet another selection headache when John Rutherford strained his groin, an injury that would eventually rule him out of the final Test.

When Campbell limped off with ten minutes to go against Waikato, the Lions plans for the Test were thrown into disarray. The naming of the final XV was delayed by 24 hours, and Campbell was declared fit. Having passed the 100 point mark during the 40-13 win over Waikato, Campbell's contribution of 24 points during the match was an indication of his importance to the team. However, his subsequent display in the fourth Test seemed to suggest that Campbell was rushed back too soon. But with all the injuries in the squad, you understood the desperation of the Lions' selectors.

Criticism from all angles

As the tour limped towards the inevitable messy end, the vultures started to circle. England hooker Peter Wheeler questioned the selection of skipper Ciaran Fitzgerald over Colin Deans. "The Lions' perseverance with Ciaran has proved an expensive exercise," stated the man many felt was desperately unlucky not to make the squad. Wheeler's was just one of many dissenting voices.

Chalkie White, the successful Leicester coach, expressed dismay at the direction of the Lions. "What are they trying to achieve? I have watched them in training twice and I have no idea what they are trying to do." All Blacks captain Andy Dalton questioned the pattern the Lions were trying to develop. Waikato coach, George Simpkin, did not hold back after his team had been beaten by the Lions. "With the sort of possession they (the backs) received they were short of ideas. We were very fortunate they were so incompetent.

The Daily Express' Tony Bodley commented on "the alarming deterioration in British back play." Terry MacLean wrote in the Times that in the matches against Hawke's Bay and the Counties "the Lions have displayed naught but a monumental capacity for playing rugby sub-international in quality and stupendously riddled with errors." There was simply no escape from the harsh words.

McBride did try to fight his corner. Bemoaning the shortened itinerary, the Lions manager complained that coach Jim Telfer was unable to develop combinations before the international series. Yet this complaint received a firm response from Micky Steele-Bodger (Chairman of the British Union's Tour Committee). "Judgement tends to be governed by hindsight and is based on results that have occurred," Bodger-Steele commented, also noting that the schedule had been drawn up a year before, and all interested parties, including McBride and Telfer, had agreed to it. 

Throughout the tour McBride had also been scathing in his opinions on the refereeing standards in New Zealand. Again, this gripe was returned with interest. The New Zealand Rugby Union had agreed to set up meetings between their referees and the Lions management to discuss law interpretation, but these offers had not been accepted. And Cecil Blazey (New Zealand Rugby Union Chairman) hit back at McBride's views. "If Willie John is suggesting that British refereeing standards are superior to New Zealand's, I am bound to say, as one who has seen a good deal of both, that I reject this contention totally."

Selection decisions

With Calder and Rutherford ruled out, the Lions were forced into two changes for the fourth Test. John O'Driscoll would replace Calder in the back row, with David Irwin coming in for Rutherford. It had been rumoured that Steve Smith's impressive form in the wins over Hawke's Bay and the Counties would see the replacement take the place of the under performing Roy Laidlaw. But a solid performance by the Scot in the Waikato win, and a slight hamstring strain for Smith, ended the debate.

New Zealand's only concern was the fitness of fly half Wayne Smith, who had limped off the pitch during the third Test. When Smith was ruled out, Ian Dunn came into the team, just as he had for the first Test in Christchurch.

"Individual pride and self respect for our rugby can win this Test," Fitzgerald said on the eve of the final match of the tour. But despite the captain's positive words, and Telfer imploring his team to go for it and enjoy themselves, there was very little optimism from the journalists covering the tour at the time.

"I fear the Lions are simply not good enough to beat the most efficient side in world rugby," Chris Lander wrote in the Daily Mirror. It was hard to find fault in his pessimistic match preview. After 80 harrowing minutes at Eden Park, Auckland, Lander's fears, along with the views of many others, were fully justified.


New Zealand: Hewson, Wilson, Pokere, Taylor, Fraser, Dunn, Loveridge; Ashworth, Dalton, Knight, Whetton, Haden, Shaw, Hobbs, Mexted

Lions: Evans (W), Carleton (E), Irwin (I), Kiernan (I), Baird (S), Campbell (I), Laidlaw (S); Jones (W), Fitzgerald (I), Price (W), Colclough (E), Bainbridge (E), O'Driscoll (I), Winterbottom (E), Paxton (S)

The match

Two Alan Hewson penalties in the first ten minutes put the Lions on the back foot immediately, and with the All Blacks enjoying all of the possession, it looked like being a very long afternoon for the visitors. When New Zealand moved 16-3 in front after just half an hour, the plane journey home probably couldn't come quickly enough for the demoralised Lions players.

A fantastic darting run from centre Steve Pokere saw the New Zealander drop the ball in the tackle just yards short of the Lions line, but the All Blacks would not have long to wait for their first try. The resulting scrum was won against the head, with the Lions pack in disarray, allowing flanker Jock Hobbs to score his first Test try.

Moments later, a record breaking try from Stu Wilson demonstrated the ability of the New Zealand backs, the Lions suffering badly in comparison. A fine move involving Loveridge, Dunn, Pokere, and Fraser, saw Wilson cross the line for the 17th time in an All Blacks shirt, setting a new record for his country. And there would be more to come.

A Pokere chip through allowed Wilson to score his second try, and as the second half progressed, there was no sign that the home team were going to take their feet off the throats of the desperate Lions. Hewson would score the next try, on a day when he would rack up 18 points, although he owed a big thanks to a couple of Lions backs who seemed to sum up the mental state of the team at the time.

Hewson's kick through really should have been dealt with by either Campbell or full back Gwyn Evans, but the former was struggling with his hamstring strain - he would later be replaced by Hugo MacNeill - and Evans missed the ball completely, the general sloppiness of the try highlighting that the tourists had simply taken one punch too many. Very much like Perth 1994/95, if you had the misfortune of watching that particular Ashes shambles.

Trailing by 26-3, there was simply no respite. Andy Haden went over for the next try, after the New Zealand pack had driven towards the Lions' posts, but it would be the final try of the tour that provided a fitting end to the match. Attempting to run the ball, the Lions backs literally threw it away, a misplaced pass going behind Rob Ackerman - who had come on for the concussed Roger Baird - and Wilson completed his hat trick with ease.

Hewson would again slot over the conversion, before Evans reduced the deficit with a late penalty that did little to improve the embarrassment. The 38-6 defeat was, and still is, a record defeat for the Lions in an international, and the reaction to the final Test result, and the tour as a whole, would be stinging to say the least.

Fallout and the future

McBride may have proclaimed that the performance was the finest he had seen from a New Zealand team, but the press did not hold back in their assessment of the Lions in the final Test. Don Cameron reported that "the British Lions were cut to pieces" with Bodley describing the debacle as "an abject surrender". All were unanimous in their view that the game in the home nations was light years behind that of New Zealand.

Bodley felt the beatings would continue if the structure of the domestic game was not reorganised, and he found an ally in McBride. "Our top players play in too many meaningless club games," the Lions manager admitted. "We need a system that compares with regular high pressure rugby that the All Blacks have."

There were some players that came out of the tour with credit, such as Peter Winterbottom, John Carleton, Rutherford, Evans, and Steve Bainbridge. But the bottom line was that New Zealand were simply the better team; Telfer admitted after the conclusion of the tour that none of his players would make the New Zealand XV. McBride was adamant that the best players had been taken; yet sometimes you just have to admit that the opposition were superior.

"It was a very good tour even if the results were disappointing," Fitzgerald informed the gathered press as the players returned to Blighty, with McBride also asserting that it had been a "very happy tour". "We had a wonderful bunch of young men who have learned a lot about the way rugby is played in New Zealand. Unfortunately New Zealand were very much the better side."

There could be no disputing that final point. Bryce Rope excitedly said that his team were "on the brink of greatness", and although the New Zealand coach would be gone within a year, the baton was passed to Brian Lochore, who would build a team that would sweep all before them at the inaugural World Cup in 1987.

The Lions may have had a lot of faults, but there really was no disgrace in losing to that New Zealand team 4-0 in 1983. The first three Tests were keenly contested, and it was only the last Test that saw a punch drunk Lions team hammered.

So although some labelled the squad "the worst Lions ever" on their return, personally I have some sympathy. Realistically, New Zealand were just too strong, and the 1983 Lions did not possess enough world class players to compete. Surely, all things taken into consideration, they were not as shambolic as the 2005 tour to the same country?

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