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Lynn McConnell

Southland-born Lynn McConnell is a sportswriter/historian with 40 years experience in journalism having been sports editor of The Evening Post and The Southland Times. Lynn has written several books including 'Behind the Silver Fern: Playing Rugby for New Zealand' together with Tony Johnson.

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Lions Flashback: 1977

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allblacks.com     17 Mar 2017     Getty Images

It was an inexorable march toward professionalism although the administrators of the day did not see it that way.

But consider, in 1965 New Zealand hosted the Springboks and a year later the Lions. Two major tours in consecutive years had never happened before. The All Blacks toured Britain and France in 1967, Australia in 1968, hosted France in 1968 and Wales in 1969 and then toured South Africa in 1970, hosted the Lions in 1971, the Australians in 1972, England in 1973 after the cancellation of a Springbok tour, toured Australia and Ireland in 1974, played one Test against Scotland in 1975 and then hosted Ireland before touring South Africa and Argentina in 1976.

QUICK TAP: LIONS FLASHBACK - 1983

The Lions after their great tour to New Zealand in 1971 had then won their first series in South Africa with three wins and a draw – it was their greatest era.

That was the weight on their shoulders as they returned to New Zealand. Their coach John Dawes had captained the 1971 side and they included some famous names in the game including captain Phil Bennett, fullback Andy Irvine, centre Mike Gibson, second five-eighths Ian McGeechan and forwards like Willie Duggan, Jeff Squire, Derek Quinnell, Terry Cobner, Tony Neary, Moss Keane, Bill Beaumont, Gordon Brown, Fran Cotton, Graham Price, Peter Wheeler and Bobby Windsor.

The tour became a fractious affair. The weather was miserable, mud abounded and allegations flew thick and fast, but especially by the visiting media who rounded on their side, and especially the team management.

New Zealand writer TP McLean noted in his tour book, Winter of Discontent, which was an apt summation of the tour, that the Lions team management resented the criticisms made of the side by the touring British Press and their 'presence was unwelcome'.

"In certain aspects, most notably in the development of forward power at the set-piece plays of scrummaging and lineout, the Lions had demonstrated qualities and reached standards beyond the grasp of New Zealand teams," he said.

However, the side had suffered indifferent standards in their mid-field backplay, and were below the standards of traditional Lions sides in that area.

They were the 'least lovable Lions' in his book.

The side had nine games before the first Test, and were beaten only on the eve of that Test by an unheralded New Zealand Universities in Christchurch 21-9. The tour opened in Masterton against Wairarapa Bush with a 41-13 win and other games were Hawke's Bay 13-11, Poverty Bay-East Coast 25-6, Taranaki 21-13, King Country-Wanganui 60-9, a game where fullback Andy Irvine unleashed his speed in a five-try haul, Manawatu-Horowhenua 18-12, Otago 12-7 and Southland 20-12.

In the first Test, at Athletic Park, the Lions were held tryless as the All Blacks scored three tries to Sid Going, Brad Johnstone and an intercept runaway by Grant Batty, a try which would be his last scoring act before his injured knee forced him out of the side, for a 16-12 win.

The Hanan Shield districts of South and Mid Canterbury and North Otago were beaten 45-6, Canterbury 14-13, in which Alex Wyllie made his third appearance for his province against the tourists, West Coast-Buller 45-0, Wellington 13-6 and Marlborough-Nelson Bays 40-23 before the all-important second Test.

This was a must-win for the Lions to keep the series alive and courtesy of the only try of the game scored by wing JJ Williams they claimed a 13-9 win.

The loss had its ramifications for the All Blacks. Out went two-Test fullback Colin Farrell, wing Mark Taylor, second five-eighths Lin Jaffray, halfback Sid Going, flanker Kevin Eveleigh and prop Brad Johnstone.

They were replaced by new caps, Bevan Wilson, Brian Ford, Lyn Davis, Graham Mourie and John McEldowney, while Bill Osborne moved in one position to second five-eighths to allow Bruce Robertson to return from injury.

Before they were tested however, the Lions beat New Zealand Maoris 22-19 where Going's two tries were not sufficient to retain his place. Waikato were beaten 18-13, New Zealand Juniors 19-9 and Auckland 34-15.

And so to Dunedin for the third Test where from the first lineout the All Blacks scored within the opening minute. Ian Kirkpatrick scoring the try from a Robertson kick through. Willie Duggan then replied from a five-metre scrum and blindside break by halfback Brynmor Williams.

Lock Andy Haden got across for a try when snaffling ball that came out the side of ruck close to the Lions' goal-line. Bevan Wilson marked his debut by landing two important penalty goals to one by Irvine before the game ended with Robertson who snapped over a dropped goal to give New Zealand a 19-7 win.

Robertson was back in the action for Counties-Thames Valley in the next game, won by the Lions 35-10. North Auckland were beaten 18-7, Bay of Plenty 23-16 before the final Test at Eden Park.

The All Blacks' inability to compete in the scrummaging was still an issue and Johnstone and Kent Lambert were recalled. However, Johnstone pulled a hamstring warming up and McEldowney returned to the side with Bill Bush back in the reserves.

The Lions enjoyed dominance up front and the All Blacks had to make plenty of first half tackles before Lions halfback Doug Morgan scored to give the Lions a 9-3 lead at half-time.

In the second half a shoulder injury to McEldowney resulted in one of the most memorable sights of the tour, the All Blacks putting down a three-man scrum while they waited for a medical clearance to replace the Taranaki prop.

However, with Bill Bush on as a replacement a penalty goal by Wilson left the All Blacks only three points behind and with about 15 minutes remaining tension was obvious.

Sadly for the Lions, Bennett failed to find a touch which saw Osborne kick ahead towards the Lions line. Steve Fenwick took the ball just out from his line. In the motion of passing to hooker Peter Wheeler, Fenwick was hit in a hard tackle by Osborne. Mourie then tackled Wheeler and when the ball flew from his grasp All Blacks No.8 Laurie Knight was on hand to cover the final 10m to score.

In the final few moments the Lions threw everything at the All Blacks and Duggan was ruled to have been just short of the goal-line. A five-metre scrum was ordered and when the ball was moved through the Lions backline, a knock-on by Irvine sealed the fate of the tourists and the All Blacks had the series.

But it was that close.