Can British Lions Rugby History Repeat Itself?
On 31st July 1971, players selected by British Lions coach Carwyn James ran onto the pitch at Athletic Park in Wellington, New Zealand with the chance to create rugby history. Never before had a Lions side won a series in New Zealand.
In the 4-test series, the Lions had won the 1st test in Carisbrook, Dundein 9-3 and then lost 22-12 at Lancaster Park, Christchurch. Even though there was still one remaining test after Wellington, winning the 3rd test would put the Lions in pole position for a historic series victory.
So how does the British Lions team who face the All Blacks at Eden Park in Auckland in tomorrow’s (8th July 2017) test compare with the 1971 heroes?
Full Back – 15
JPR Williams (Wales) played all 4 tests in 1971 and famously leveled the 4th and final test with a 45 metre drop-goal, the only one of his illustrious career.
An equally uncompromising and unpredictable Welshman wears the 15 jersey tomorrow. Liam Williams, the Scarlet who joins Saracens next season, produced some rugby brilliance in the 1st test, sidestepping to start one of the best Lions tries ever scored. He was not our predicted full back (we chose Leigh Halfpenny back in April 2017), and can he reproduce that 1st Test magic, whilst also cutting out simple mistakes?
Wings – 11 & 14
In the 1971 3rd test, the wing berths were occupied by Gerald Davies (Wales) and honorary Welshman David Duckham (England). Davies started the 3rd test after scoring twice in the 2nd test. He went on to score the vital only try of the game. Our April prediction of George North (Wales) and Stuart Hogg (Scotland) never materialized because of injury and form. Instead, two Englishmen have claimed the shirts. Anthony Watson and Elliot Daly will hopefully provide the magic and pace to frighten the All Blacks out wide.
Centres – 12 & 13
Captain John Dawes lined up with Irish legend Mike Gibson for all 4 tests in 1971. In April, we predicted that Owen Farrell (England) would start the 1st test at 12 with Jonathan Davies (Wales) outside in the 1st test. We were out by one game, with Gatland selecting them for the 2nd and 3rd Tests. Jonathan Davies has been in great form and has cut through the All Blacks in each Test. He just needs support and composure to turn those opportunities into tries.
Fly/Outside Half – 10
People say that Rugby is different today, but Welshman Barry John is still regarded as one of the finest players ever to wear the number 10 shirt. He played all 4 tests in 1971, kicking 5 penalties, 3 conversions, and 2 drop goals. Initially we thought Gatland would stick with his statement that Farrell and Sexton would be competing for the same shirt, but in the 2nd test he surprised everyone and selected Sexton at 10.
Scrum Half – 9
The All Blacks faced the best Scrum Half ever to play the game of rugby in 1971. Gareth Edwards was the ultimate number 9 and gave Barry John the space he needed to excel. Our ‘Welsh-Rose-Tinted-Glasses’ envisaged Rhys Webb starting the first test, but Connor Murray has made the 9 shirt his own. Strong and with an excellent box kick, Murray scored the decisive try in the 2nd test.
Welshman Mervyn Davies (Merv-the-swerve) played all 4 Test at number 8 in 1971. In 2017, Billy Vinopola (England) was the favourite to wear the shirt, but failed to make the tour due to injury. His place has been taken by the quiet and unassuming Taulupe Faletau (Wales). He has had an excellent tour and his try in the 2nd Test started the come back.
Back Row – 6 & 7
John Taylor and Peter Dixon had been selected for the 1st two tests in 1971 and would go on to be selected for the 4th Test, but their places were taken by Derek Quinnell (Wales) and Fergus Slattery (Ireland) for the 3rd Test. Back in April, we thought that tour captain Sam Warburton (Wales) may start the 1st test at 6, but we were out by one game. His physicality in the 2nd test was one of the reasons for a more competitive forward encounter. However, we selected the wrong Irishman as his partner in the back row, with the outstanding Sean O’Brien keeping CJ Stander (Ireland) out of the test squad.
Second Row – 4 & 5
For the 2nd, 3rd and 4th Tests in 1971, Lions legend, Willie John McBride (Ireland) packed down with Gordon Brown (Scotland). Again, our selection prediction for the 1st Test in 2017 was one game out, as veteran Alun Wyn-Jones (Wales) and Maro Itoje (England) pack down for the 2nd time in the engine house.
Props – 1 & 3
The front row was the same for all 4 Tests in 1971, with J F Lynch (Ireland) and Mighty Mouse, Ian McLauchlan (Scotland) propping. Although there was some consternation that we had predicted the selection of two tightheads for the 1st Test (Dan Cole (England) and Tadhg Furlong (Ireland)), Furlong starts alongside Mako Vunipola (England). Let’s hope that Vunipola keeps his head and his discipline in the 3rd Test.
Hooker – 2
English great John Pullin was the man in the middle of the scrum in 1971. Our selection prediction for the 1st Test included Welshman Ken Owens, and he makes the bench. England second choice, Jamie George, has made the Hooker position his own with some sterling performances on tour.
On the 8th July 2017, the 22 British Lions players selected to play against the All Blacks have the chance to become rugby legends. There is no doubting the enormity of the occasion. Some say this is just 22 players against 22. But then we utter the words ‘All Blacks’. To win, those selected to wear the red shirt will have to play at the peak of their ability. They will need to push their bodies to the point of exhaustion. Only then might the Lions have a chance of winning the final Test and securing the series.
Good luck! We are all behind you!
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