August 1 - 1959 Lions too strong for Wellington

British Isles 21 - Wellington 6

After three losses (to Otago, the first test, and Canterbury) in eleven matches the Lions needed a win to get back on track. But a well performed Wellington side with some star quality represented a serious challenge.

“Wellington, with its central geographical situation, is the logical place for the country’s seat of government, though some of its main streets are much too narrow and congested. The climate, too, can be distinctly boisterous, and has given the city the tag of ‘Windy Wellington’. Still, as Taffy Davies was fond of pointing out, ‘it blows away the germs’, and statistics prove that Wellington is one of the healthiest places in the country. The Lions, one should add, were extremely lucky with the weather on their tour, and always seemed to bring the sunshine with them. Only two or three times, notably against Southland, did it actually rain while a match was in progress.

At Wellington the welcome was very much on V.I.P. level. First the team was honoured with a Parliamentary reception, at which the Prime Minister, Mr Nash, and the leader of the Opposition, Mr Holyoake, spoke. Mr Nash greeted the Lions in affable terms, but was not above twitting them on one point. Referring to the first Test he reminded them: ‘If you hadn’t done the things you ought not to have done, he [Don Clarke] wouldn’t have done the things he ought to have done.’ He then added that he had listened in to only three of the matches, against Otago, New Zealand in the first Test, and Canterbury, and on each occasion the Lions had lost. This prompted Ronnie Dawson, when replying, to ask the Prime Minister if he would mind not listening in any more!

There followed a display of singing and dancing by a group of Maori men and women, and the team were introduced to a Mr Sid Jackson, whose father, F. S. Jackson of Leicester, had been a member of the 1908 Anglo-Welsh team in New Zealand, and later returned there to marry a Maori girl. Other functions came thick and fast, among them a cocktail party given by the New Zealand Rugby Union, whose headquarters are in Wellington, and the Wellington Rugby Union Ball on the Saturday night to round off the Lions’ stay. Several men’s clubs in Wellington, and golf clubs in the surrounding area, had also made the touring party honorary members.

Rugby, however, was the primary purpose on hand, and the match against Wellington was an important one for several reasons. It was high time for the Lions to win back a few of the stripes lost against the stronger provincial sides, and Wellington were known to be tough opposition. They had already beaten Auckland and Canterbury in the current season, and had four former All Blacks in their side – Watt in the centre, and McIntosh, their captain, Vodanovich and MacEwan in the pack.

The Lions accordingly picked a team that was nearly up to Test strength, with only O’Reilly, Wood, Smith and Faull omitted of those who had played at Dunedin. There was one further change, when Jackson withdrew owing to rib injuries received at Blenheim, and Malcolm Thomas took his place. A New Zealand writer remarked that it was just as well that Malcolm Thomas was relinquishing the captaincy, for the Lions had scored 58 and 64 points under his leadership!

Wellington were expected to be strong in the line-out, with MacEwan, the New Zealand expert, in their ranks, so the Lions’ own three specialists, David Marques, Rhys

Williams and Roddy Evans were all included. It paid, for the Lions’ pack gave one of its best displays of the tour, and laid the foundation for a very good win, by 21 points to 6.

Before the match the Wellington committee had announced that their team would ‘play their normal open game, whatever the consequences’, for they had a reputation for bright and attractive football and wanted to retain it, win or lose. The result was a magnificent open game, with an abundance of movement and spectacle,

which all present enjoyed. For a long time, Wellington had the Lions in real trouble, and the devastating tackling by their back-row men, Bevan, Grbich and McIntosh forced the Lions’ backs into all sorts of errors. At halftime the home team were leading by 6 points to 3, thanks to two fine penalty-goals by Watt, a place-kicker of model technique, against a try by Price.

This suited the crowd of 47,000, but they were quick, too, to applaud any good piece of play by the Lions, and seemed one of the fairest crowds in New Zealand. Athletic Park, where the match was played, is the Twickenham of New Zealand and has an atmosphere of its own which was quickly communicated to the players.

In the second half, the pendulum began to swing the other way. The Lions now had the stiffish wind at their backs, and the home team’s half-time lead of 6-3 proved insufficient. This was not unexpected, for when the Lions crossed over only three points down they were half-way to victory. Wellington, to make certain of winning, should have scored more points in the first half. Nor did they help themselves by continual offences in the line- out, which brought a string of penalties in their train. After the restart the Lions went straight away into the attack, and Malcolm Thomas all but scored. Then Price, from a movement started by Roddy Evans, cleared the field with a dazzling burst and crossed for his second try of the match. Risman failed with the kick, but was successful with his next effort after Millar, who played his best game of the tour, had picked up a loose ball and galloped twenty yards to score. The Lions’ forwards were now going great guns, with Marques and Rhys Williams performing an enormous amount of hard work, and Roddy Evans and the two props, Millar and McLeod, backing them up to the full. In the loose, too, the visiting pack produced some clever touches, and it was Dawson who paved the way for the next try, by Risman, with a copybook scrum-half’s dive-pass from broken play. Risman did the rest with two perfect sidesteps, and strolled over with the defence completely beaten, before converting his own try. Near the end John Young went over for the Lions’ fifth try, after juggling one-handed with a high ball and rounding Caulton, the Wellington left-wing, with whom he had a terrific tussle throughout.

Caulton had previously beaten Young two or three times, and did so well generally that he was picked for New Zealand in the second Test. There was no doubt about his speed and capacity for ‘snap-thinking’, as the New Zealanders call it, and the impression was confirmed by his fine form in the remainder of the Test series. Risman converted Young’s final try, from the edge of touch, leaving the Lions winners by a convincing margin, after a first-rate display. This applied particularly to the forwards, where the line-out figures were thirty-three to twenty-three in the tourists’ favour, and Dawson, as hooker, won twenty-five scrums to twenty, though losing three tight heads to two. In the loose Murphy and Morgan were continually prominent, especially in the early stages, and with the forwards in such good form the Lions’ backs had a field day. They had much more pace, collectively, than their opposite numbers, and some of the running by Risman, Hewitt, Price, Malcolm Thomas and Young, was positively sparkling.

Jeeps and Scotland, too, were at the top of their form. One unusual note was that Jeeps, the apparently indestructible, was knocked out in stopping a forward rush; but he refused to leave the field, although everyone, including Ronnie Dawson, tried to persuade him to do so.

The Wellington team, for their part, earned plenty of marks, especially Taitoko, a mercurial bundle of energy at full-back, Caulton on the wing, Lees and Cull at halfback, with the latter making several good bursts in spite of an injured arm, and Grbich, Mcintosh and MacEwan – as a prop – in the forwards. This was a very big Wellington pack, including MacEwan at 16 stone 6, Harker at 16 stone , and three 15 stoners, so the Lions’ eight did very well to get the better of them. Later the Wellington captain, McIntosh, said: ‘Congratulations to the British Isles on their victory. They had too much pace for us. Their line-out work was very good. It was a fine, hard game, played in a wonderful spirit. We went out trying to play entertaining football. We hope we pleased the public.’

They certainly did, and Ronnie Dawson expressed the general opinion afterwards when he said: ‘I thought the Wellington team was a good one and I admired the way they played attacking football.’

The fact remained that the Lions had scored five tries, with none against, to maintain an amazing average of six tries per match since they had come to New Zealand.”

From “Lions Down Under” by Vivian Jenkins. Pub. 1960 by Cassell & Co. Ltd p.158-163.

Ralph Caulton - a fine game in a losing side earned him an All Blacks selection