Phil Gifford: The 1971 Lions team was about as beautiful as a punch in the face

The Lions' J.P.R Williams takes on Ian Kirkpatrick in 1971.
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The Lions' J.P.R Williams takes on Ian Kirkpatrick in 1971.

OPINION: We could call them alternative facts. But let's be honest and call them lies.

With the Lions' tour closing in brace yourself for a barrage of bull from the north. The rugby media in Britain are experts at sinking the boot into the All Blacks, and New Zealand rugby.

There may have even more up their collective sleeves, but I'll guarantee three great falsehoods will get several runs around the block between now and when the tour ends on July 8.

Barry John is chased by Tane Norton during the first test in June 1971 in Dunedin.
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Barry John is chased by Tane Norton during the first test in June 1971 in Dunedin.

Lie No.1.

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The 1971 Lions, the only Lions to win a series here, were not only winners but also embodied the glories of great, running, try scoring, rugby. If only the All Blacks, of the past, or today, could follow their example.

Lions No 10 Barry John kicks the ball against the All Blacks in Auckland in 1971.
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Lions No 10 Barry John kicks the ball against the All Blacks in Auckland in 1971.

It's a myth that grows with every year. The kings of ' 71 showed, apparently, just how beautiful a game rugby could be. First-five Barry John has been compared to a poet.

The facts? The beautiful poets were a very good team, with a great pack of forwards. But as All Black captain in '71, Colin Meads, jokes, the only time John passed the ball was "if he was in trouble, so he'd get rid of it to the great (Irish centre) Mike Gibson outside him to clean everything up."

Unlike some of the writers who swoon about the '71 Lions, Meads had the advantage of being on the field when they played. I was only on the press benches, but my memory is exactly the same.

The figures back the impressions. In the four test series, of which the Lions won two, the All Blacks one, and the fourth test, at Eden Park, was a draw, the dour, boring All Blacks scored eight tries and the thrilling, daring Lions six.

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Wait, there's more. Teeth gritted I recently watched a video of the whole 80 minutes of the last test, taking notes all the way.

In the first half, although John did pass eight times, while kicking seven times, the ball did not make it once to the Lions' wings. Gibson or fellow centre John Dawes did the kicking if John didn't.

In the second half John got the ball nine times. He kicked every single time. That's nine kicks, zero passes.

The '71 Lions were tough, strong, and defensively sound. They were about as beautiful as a punch in the mouth.

Lie No.2.

The All Blacks will be relying on players we've stolen from the Pacific Islands.

I've looked an English journo, a pleasant man in every other respect, straight in the eye after he said it was a shame our best players, like Jonah Lomu, had been looted, and asked if he realised that Jonah was born in Auckland.

The fruit loops in America who believe Barack Obama was born in Kenya would have recognised the look of disbelief on his face, although he was too well mannered to violently disagree.

Auckland being the largest Polynesian city in the world is a reality that seems to have escaped the Twickers crowd.

The facts? As revealed in a recent Stuff story by Ben Strang, in the years since 2005, 19 per cent of test debutants in Wales, 23 per cent in Ireland, 25 per cent in England and 43 per cent in Scotland were born in other countries. In the same time period 16 per cent of All Blacks were born outside New Zealand. Is it not also a wonderful irony that the best team in Britain is coached by an Aussie, and captained by a Kiwi, and that a New Zealander will coach the Lions?

Lie No.3.

New Zealand rugby is loaded with thugs and their officials are cheats. Just look at what happened to Brian O'Driscoll in 2005.

Let me say first of all that O'Driscoll being upended in the first test of the series by Tana Umaga and Keven Mealamu was reckless and dangerous, and could easily have resulted in not only a double red card, but also lengthy suspensions. As a direct result, the IRB would, three months later, specifically ban such tackles which it said "are totally unacceptable and have absolutely no place in rugby".

However, at the time in Wellington, the independent judicial commissioner, South African Willem Venter, decided there were no grounds for Umaga and Mealamu to go to a hearing.

The London Daily Telegraph's Brendon Gallagher then wrote of "an extraordinary spin doctoring campaign launched by the All Blacks. What incident? What injury? What citing commissioner?" as if that was why the pair weren't cited.

The facts? There was a weird agreement between the Lions and the NZRU that any disciplinary matters had to be resolved within 12 hours of a match.

There was no citing because the only clear video (which is still on YouTube) is amateur footage taken from the crowd.

Television coverage was very sketchy because by the time O'Driscoll, who didn't have the ball, was upended play, and the TV cameras, had moved out along the All Black backline. When the amateur video emerged the 12-hour time limit was up.

A stupid agreement? Yes. But Umaga and Mealamu didn't escape a hearing because New Zealand rugby officials were devious and clever enough to cheat the rules.

And by the way, when the All Blacks set the tier one consecutive test victories record they weren't proud to be led, as England are now, by a player found guilty during his career of eye gouging, head butting, biting, and abusing an official. If you didn't know better you'd almost think there was some hypocrisy involved in English rugby.

***

Fans of brutal forward clashes should be looking at air flights to Fiji for May 19, when the Chiefs will play the Crusaders.  The Crusaders look to be the only New Zealand side whose pack is as tough, skilled, and committed enough to match the giants in the Chiefs.

 - Sunday Star Times

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