June 2 - 1971 Lions beat NZ Maori in hard game

The 1971 Lions had won their first three matches with something to spare but struck a fired up Maori team in a mid week match in Auckland before a big crowd. After a close first half the Lions gained a measure of control and deserved their win. They also scored the only try.

Unfortunately the game was not played in a good spirit and the British press were critical. The Lions management however made no complaint, taking the politic line that it was good learning experience for their players.

Sid Going - NZ Maori captain

“Let it be said, immediately, before any analysis is attempted; this was a very hard, vigorous game of rugby football, which any British referee would not have allowed. There were too many flying fists and boots and too much ‘climbing-in’ at the rucks to satisfy me, or anyone else, used to the firmer control of British referees. Yet Mr Millar was not biased in any way – he just allowed the play to be rougher than, in my opinion, it should have been. Although no complaints were made by the management of the Lions, Mr Millar was quietly crossed off their list of test possibles. Sad, but necessary, although Mr Millar was an excellent fellow in every way. He should have kept a stricter control and tighter rein on the play throughout.

The Lions won in the end because they revealed greater control. The Maori fire disturbed them in the first half and for the first time on tour they fell behind when the Maoris got their third penalty after 36 minutes to make the score 9-6. The Lions equalised before the interval and then went on to win comfortably through the accurate kicking of Barry John.

It was a game of penalties although only twenty-six were awarded in the match when it could have been forty-six. The count was 14-12 to the Lions and they had eight attempts at goal for John to succeed with six, while the Maoris had four attempts and four goals through their excellent full-back, Pickrang. In addition the Lions scored a good try through left wing John Bevan chasing after a deftly-placed short diagonal punt to the left corner. The Lions almost scored four other tries and while coach James modestly declared that it was the result of bad finishing, I was more inclined to believe that it was excellent covering and more than a shade of defensive luck favouring the Maoris!

As always, the Lions began well and were two penalty goals in the lead after 11 minutes, due to the accuracy of ace kicker John and the indiscretions of the Maoris. After 14 minutes came the Lynch incident. The Irishman was pulling at flank forward Baker by the jersey, and at this Baker swung round to catch Lynch unawares with his forearm, across the mouth. It was a severe blow that caused blood to spurt from Lynch’s mouth as a result of a deep cut, and despite his protests he had to be led away to the touch-line while Gibson, as captain for the day, signalled to Manager Smith concerning a replacement. In a few minutes, Delme Thomas was on the field and Mike Roberts had moved up to prop for Delme to pack with Gordon Brown in the second row.

The arrival of Thomas strengthened the line-out power, for there was Roberts at No. 2, Brown and Thomas in the middle, and Mervyn Davies at the end, and it was this power bloc that turned the scales. In addition they held their own in the set scrums, and here John Pullin did well with one five feet nine inch prop and one six feet four and half inch prop. Pullin, an experienced and effective hooker who gets on with the job, did not lose a strike from the moment he was joined by Roberts and it speaks well of the front row, against a strong trio in Maniapoto, Norton and Joseph.

Barry John and Pickrang each kicked three penalties in the first half and at the interval it was 9-9 but the Lions had not played as well as they should have done and were obviously disturbed by the fiery Maoris. They steadied in the second half and five minutes from the restart achieved the decisive score. John made a long weaving run and then broke out to kick to the left corner. The ball moved wide of defenders and Bevan, in full cry, got to it first to score in the corner for John to kick his best goal of the match and make it 14-9. From that moment, the Lions were in charge. John kicked another two penalties followed by one from Pickrang, and it was 12 minutes before the end when John kicked his sixth penalty to make the final tally 23-12.

Towards the end of the match centre Ken Going raced in and ‘took’ John Spencer without the ball. It was a thoughtless act and although the referee did not see it, Spencer told him, quite frankly, what had happened. When the Maoris were next in possession and attempted a mid-field scissors, Ken Going dropped the ball when he saw Spencer coming at him. This did not delay Spencer’s arrival and the ‘compliment’ was returned. Strangely enough, a player is not appreciated in New Zealand unless he does ‘retaliate’. After this Spencer could have been made a blood brother!

There was a reception after the match; the speakers mentioned a ‘hard game’ but nothing else, the Lions manager and captain being most diplomatic. They said it was just the type of game they needed at that stage of the tour. They even thanked the referee; such diplomacy ‘amazed’ the New Zealand press because they wanted and expected a ‘knock’ story. The Lions believed that Mr Millar had allowed too much to ‘happen’ on the field although he was unbiased, and that they could not have him in the tests, because rough and over-vigorous play would take too great a toll of the Lions. It was as simple as that. The British press sent off their cables and described what they had seen. One looked ahead to the Auckland match with some misgiving. Why was it always rather rough at Eden Park?

The British Press cabled home thousands of words criticising rough play and suggesting that the referee should have been sterner in his approach, while most of the correspondents felt that such vigorous play as was seen, could prove a considerable disadvantage to the Lions if it was repeated in other matches. Again, the Lions management were concerned about refereeing and following good reports of Mr Millar, he appeared now to have lost his place in the test list. Some NZ critics, like Gabe David, said Maori vigour was unnecessary while Terry McLean highlighted the tackle by Ken Going upon an unsuspecting Spencer. Strange as it may appear, the Auckland crowd enjoyed all the ‘nonsense’, as they did the KO punch by Meads on the diminutive Watkins in the Fourth Test of 1966. Perhaps there is something of the approach of the Madrid ‘Corrida’ crowd among the folk at Eden Park, which is a magnificent rugby ground.

The Thursday morning press conference saw poor Gabe David working hard in an attempt to get the Lions management to say something about the play in the Maoris match but Doug Smith would give no more than, ‘It was a hard match that will do a power of good to the Lions at this stage of the tour especially for those members of the side who have never been to New Zealand before; however, our discipline and control saw us through to a good victory.’

This was the right approach, of course, and the match had ‘steeled’ the side for the further battles ahead. One could not but help recall Jim Telfer’s famous words at Christchurch following the extremely rough Canterbury match in 1966, followed by an even worse Auckland match! The Lions players had been told by Willie John McBride, earlier in the tour, as to what must be expected in New Zealand and it is possible that until the Maoris match the newcomers did not quite believe him since the first three games had been clean and satisfactorily refereed. After the Maoris match the team and especially those who had the stud marks to prove it, could confirm that there was such a thing as ‘climbing in’ at the rucks which New Zealanders, unfortunately, do not regard as dangerous play!”

From “The Roaring Lions” by J B G Thomas. Published 1971 by Pelham Books Ltd. Pp 78-81.