June 19 - 1971 Hard match and harsh words in Christchurch

In a match marked by a number of incidents the Lions beat Ranfurly Shield holders Canterbury but at a cost, the loss of two props and a flanker for the rest of the tour. The British Press was scathing about the actions and attitude of the Canterbury team, the New Zealand media were also critical. Rugby was NOT the winner on this day.

The Lions backline swings onto attack

“It was not so much the incidents of the Canterbury match, though these were bad, as the aftermath which damaged the reputation of New Zealand Rugby. The principal incidents were quite outrageous. Carmichael was belted by Hopkinson at the first scrum and afterwards was struck so often and hard that he was partially blinded. Slattery had his two front teeth loosened by a savage elbow jolt. Gibson and Edwards were brutally kicked while they lay on the ground, Edwards when he was at least 15 yards from the ball. Dawes was hurtled to the ground in a powerful tackle while the ball was passing far above his head. Pullin was stiffened by a punch. There were some retaliations. McLoughlin broke his hand with a punch which connected with the side of Wylie’s head. Hipwell climbed in two or three times. Bevan lustily pushed McCormick—and Fergi, in a tour of many Holly-woods, produced the finest of all by lying stretched out as if poleaxed. But the curious event which most disturbed the Lions was the thread of perjorative mimicry of the Southern English accent which the Canterbury players kept up through the game. “I say, too soft to take it, old boy”—”You aren’t soft, are you, you Pommy bastards?”—that sort of thing. What the players said, conversationally, the spectators on the open terraces shouted. The invocations to the Canterburians to kick or, kill the Pommy bastards—if the first had been done, the second would have been a consequence—were frequent and fervent.

In the aftermath many things were said and written in contempt of Canterbury and at a serious cost to the status and prestige of the game in New Zealand. The immediate local reaction was tolerably mild. John Brooks, a sober-minded, fair and capable critic, said in The Press that by the final whistle thirty penalties had been awarded and at least as many punches thrown—”an alarming average, for the ball was in play only 29m 40s”. “However,” Brooks said, “the Lions’ illegalities did not entitle Canterbury to mete out rough justice. Nine of the touring players had required attention for either bumps or thumps and Dawes might well have thought he was commanding a thin red line. Leaders from both camps referred to the match as a good, hard game. They might have called it more properly a bad, hard game.”

This was pale stuff compared with what was said elsewhere.

David Frost said in the Guardian that the match was a “squalid turmoil” in which Canterbury “descended to the lowest level of thuggery”. Tudor James in the Daily Mirror spoke of the ugly, ill-tempered and often vicious tactics used by Canterbury which, he said, would turn the younger generation away from the game. The Daily Express talked of a mighty physical thumping and Terry O’Connor in the Daily Mail urged, as did Frost, that Canterbury should be taken off the fixture list of all future tours. Cliff Morgan, who had just joined the tour, said that if he lived in Christchurch, he would advise his son to play snooker, not Rugby (the Canterbury Supporters Club, with a very nice touch indeed, later presented Cliff with a snooker cue for his son). “If it becomes a matter of national prestige to hammer hell out of someone else,” said Cliff, “the game is finished.” The sports editor of The Press, R. T. Brittenden, said that Canterbury, unfortunately already had a tarnished reputation in other parts of New Zealand and “this performance will not improve it”. “Rugby administrators,” Brittenden argued, “have turned blind eyes to violence much too often.” The Dominion editorially gave Vodanovich a vigorous cuff over the ear for the “Passchendaele” statement which appeared within eighteen hours of no-side by saying that it gave “an unwarranted glory to thuggery which is more related to a back alley than a military engagement”. In Rugby News, John Reason really let fly. “You’re Just Animals, Canterbury,” said the heading over one, of his stories in the paper—it was said the Canterbury Rugby Union very seriously contemplated a writ for libel against the paper—and he himself referred to “that sort of bestiality”. In the same newspaper, Bob Howitt, the editor, alleged he had been warned on the night before the match “by someone close to the Canterbury camp” that the Canterbury players would be prominent in the first few scrums and lineouts “because the pack has a lot of meanies who want to put these Lion. forwards to the test”. It was Howitt who on the night of the match obtained from Vodanovich the material which made up the famous Passchendaele story in the Sunday News.

Loyally, the Christchurch Star sprang to the defence. An editorial headed “Fleet St. Football” said “a lot of nonsense” was being talked by British sports writers who more than anything were headline hunters. It was fair to ‘point out, the paper said, that both sides were guilty of dirty play. Canterbury players were not the only villains. The flashes of temper and the exchange of blows were brief incidents which would have been dismissed had not two Lions been so injured that the tour was over for them.

“Everyone,” said the Star, magniloquently, “will be sorry about this.” Further, the insinuation that the Canterbury tactics were something just short of mayhem was not what the 53,000 people at the park witnessed. The Star breathes, it may be said—but not in disrespect—the pure air of Canterbury. Over its report of the comments in the London newspapers it put the heading: “Rugby ‘war’ reports say ban us”.

It would be all too easy to claim, as the Star did, as the great bulk of Canterbury people did, that many of these statements were deliberately sensational and falsified the facts. Perhaps, in part, there was extravagance. It was incredible for example, that as moderate and conservative a critic as Frost should advocate the omission of Canterbury from the itinerary of future tours. Yet the grim fact was that the coincidence of the rough play, which in my view originated in the Canterbury team, and the statement by Vodanovich greatly shocked the bulk of New Zealanders. It was fair to say that the refereeing wanted in firmness. A statement by Reason in Rugby News that Dr Rainey had said to Dawes and Penrose, “From now on, I’m going to follow the ball. If anything else goes on, it’s up to you two to sort it out”, was not contradicted and for want of further explanations assured the unfortunate man that he stood no earthly chance of appointment by the Lions to a test match. It was also fair to say that other aspects—the mental preparation of the teams, for example—warranted examination.

One needs but a slight acquaintance with the history of New Zealand Rugby to be impressed by the consistently fine quality of Canterbury provincial teams down the years. Equally, one needs but a slight acquaintance with recent New Zealand Rugby to be concerned at the isolation of, and contempt for, Canterbury among the provinces. It has been impossible for this great province to provide a representative on the New Zealand Council since Victor Jensen, an extremely able administrator, retired from it in the early 1950s and Read Masters, following him, had one year of office before going through the chairs to the presidency. Since the Second World War, only three Canterbury men, Read Masters (1949), Neil McPhail (1961-64) and Robert Duff (1970—), had become All Black selectors. Rightly or wrongly, the impression got about that Christchurch had become New Zealand’s third most populous island and took peculiar satisfaction in its isolation. Nevertheless, if the province was excessively parochial, so, too, was the rest of the country equally small-minded. Condemnation was not the answer. Neither party could afford to be without the other. The Lions match clearly indicated that it was time for a rapprochement.

19 June. Lancaster Park, Christchurch. Lions 14, Canterbury 3. Perfect overhead conditions. Light north-east breeze. Ground slightly tacky. Attendance 53,000—a record for a provincial match.

A short kick-off by Dawes. Scrum. Penalty to the Lions—did Dr Rainey observe the first punch? Williams short from 55 yards. Five penalties in the first five minutes. Edwards, irresistibly ambitious, drops at goal. Fails. When will he ever learn? McLaughlin punched Wylie. Slattery copped his elbow jolt. Carmichael copped more of everything. Off the field, three minutes, back, bewildered, partly blinded. Woolhouse staggering—may have been delighted at McCormick opening the scoring. Fergi’s penalty from 42 yards—fine kick. Williams hooked penalty from two yards further. Wyllie penalised, two-point landing on top of ruck. Gibson beats McCormick, away, takes wrong turning, tackled from behind. Williams joins attack, almost through, slips. Canterbury penalised at scrum five yards, Gibson lands goal from 20 yards. 3-3. Gibson has go, knocks on. McBride has go at corner, held. Gibson has another go, out left. Williams nearly away, Dawes joins in, Bevan steams in from wing, takes pass and with irresistible drive to goal-line knocks over Hopkinson to score. Williams takes goal-kick because Gibson hurt, succeeds. 8-3. Half-time.

Pullin stops one at first lineout, second half. Rainey warning. Woolhouse kicks ball dead after Gibson kick-ahead. As play reforms, Canterbury penalised 20 yards out. Goal to Williams. Edwards kicked going for ball. Canterbury mistake—he lived. General shemozzle, Wylie, McLoughlin main contestants, Dawes-Davis in supporting bout. Cottrell makes strong run after Woolhouse effort, Williams front up, bowls over Wyllie. Further punch-up, Rainey speech to Penrose. “Lovely day, Ian? Pity we can’t have some Rugger?” Penalty against Hipwell, fightingest of Lions, but McCormick slices. Only 23 yards. Should have been goal. Duckham makes run, Lions stream downfield, force scrum five yards. Lions heel. Edwards tears across toward goalposts. Lewis crosses, takes pass, heads for line Reception committee misunderstands duties, lets him through. Try. 14-3. Can, can, can Canterbury? Answer: Nyet. Bevan chases ball. McCormick interposes. No try. Williams kicked. Great run by Davis, nearly try. Penrose almost there. Dog on field. Mix-up. Slattery stiffened. Duckham away, kick inaccurate. End of game. Typewriters rattle in press box. Clouds of smoke in vicinity understood be fog of war. John Brooks, statistical genius, announces Canterbury won 65 per cent of ball. Unable answer question, Why no Canterbury victory? Topnotch performances by Davis (champion of match), MacDonald, Matheson, Wyllie, Woolhouse, Norton. Staggering incompetence in Canterbury outer backs. Epidemic of bad passing, catching. Fifty-three thousand spectators silently quit park. Battle zone, rather. Lions galore in blood and gore. –

Lions 14 points (tries Bevan, Lewis; conversion Williams; penalty goals Williams, Gibson). Canterbury 3 (penalty goal McCormick).

From “LIONS RAMPANT” by Terry McLean. Published 1971 by A H & A W Reed. Pp 184-188