Thursday, 1 June 2017

1983: British and Irish Lions warm-up matches

The first of a series looking back at the 1983 British and Irish Lions tour of New Zealand.

The captaincy debate

When coach Jim Telfer and manager Willie John McBride sat down with fellow selectors to discuss the make-up of their Lions squad that would tour New Zealand in 1983, the biggest headache looked to be concerning the captaincy role. With England and Scotland both using two captains in the 1983 Five Nations, and Wales' Eddie Butler new to the role, Ireland's Ciaran Fitzgerald seemed the obvious candidate, although picking a skipper from outside the four home nations' captains was a possibility.

There could be no doubting Fitzgerald's captaincy capabilities; a 1982 Triple Crown and shared 1983 championship highlighted his outstanding credentials for the job. However, many felt that both Peter Wheeler of England, and Scotland's Colin Deans were actually better hookers than the Irish skipper, and with McBride emphasising that the Lions captain needed to be guaranteed a place in the starting XV, a difficult decision had to be made.

Fitzgerald got the nod, with McBride gushing in his praise of Ireland's leader: "Ciaran's qualities of leadership not only this year, but for the past two years, made him a pretty foregone conclusion." But not everyone was so convinced. The Daily Mirror's Chris Lander wrote about Wheeler's snub, describing it as "one of the most sensational omissions in the 73-year history of British Lions tours," with England centre Clive Woodward critical of the England set up for not selecting Wheeler as captain since Bill Beaumont's retirement in 1982.

Despite the criticisms, Fitzgerald, an Irish Army captain, concentrated on the challenges ahead. "To win a series in New Zealand is the ultimate. I have not been there before, but I know enough to say it will be extremely hard, physically and mentally. I see team spirit and teamwork as a crucial element. We must have a unanimity of purpose and must appreciate all the difficulties. There is talent in the squad, but we must use that talent."

The squad

A poor 1983 Five Nations championship for England was reflected in the final squad selection. Only six of the thirty-man party came from England, and two of those were seen as risky. Lock Maurice Colclough had not played since injuring his knee against France in January, with Woodward only playing in one Five Nations match due to a shoulder injury at the start of the campaign, the Times' David Hands calling the latter selection an "act of faith."

Scotland, Wales, and Ireland each included eight members of the Lions party, but one man who did not make the plane was lock Donal Lenihan. Ruled out with a hernia, Lenihan's place would go to the Englishman Steve Bainbridge, and on a relatively short Lions tour, involving 18 matches in 62 days, many more players would be summoned to New Zealand as replacements. As the injuries mounted, eventually England would eventually have the most representatives on the tour.

The squad appeared to have an embarrassment of riches at half-back; Terry Holmes of Wales, and Ireland's Ollie Campbell was an exciting partnership on paper, but with the Scottish duo of Roy Laidlaw and John Rutherford as back-up, there was strong competition for places. Other promising prospects in the back line included Scottish winger Roger Baird, and Irish centre Michael Kiernan, with Wales' Gwyn Evans selected as a winger, although he could cover at full back if required.

Welsh strength in the front row was evident in the fact that three of their players were selected as props (Staff Jones, Ian Stephens, and Graham Price). Scotland dominated the back row positions, with flanker Jim Calder selected alongside No. 8s John Beattie and Iain Paxton. And once Bainbridge was called up in place of Lenihan, England had three locks in the squad; Colclough, Steve Boyle, and Bainbridge contesting with Wales' Robert Norster for the testing examination ahead against the All Blacks pair of Andy Haden and Gary Whetton.

Full-backs: Dusty Hare (E), Hugo MacNeill (I). Wings: John Carleton (E), Trevor Ringland (I), Roger Baird (S), Gwyn Evans (W). Centres: Robert Ackerman (W), David Irwin (I), Michael Kiernan (I), Clive Woodward (E). Fly-halves: Ollie Campbell (I), John Rutherford (S). Scrum-halves: Terry Holmes (W), Roy Laidlaw (S). Props: Staff Jones (W), Ian Stephens (W), Iain Milne (S), Graham Price (W). Hookers: Colin Deans (S), Ciaran Fitzgerald (I). Locks: Steve Boyle (E), Maurice Colclough (E), Donal Lenihan (I)*, Robert Norster (W). Flankers: Jim Calder (S), Peter Winterbottom (E), John O'Driscoll (I), Jeff Squire (W). Number 8s: John Beattie (S), Iain Paxton (S).

* Steve Bainbridge replaced Donal Lenihan, who withdrew with a hernia

Early days

With only six matches before the first Test, and a number of challenging midweek clashes against provincial sides, the itinerary facing the Lions looked tough, and so it would prove. A 47-15 victory over Wanganui in the tour opener saw the Lions start "their tour of New Zealand with a growl rather than a full-throated roar," according to The Times report, with the back row of Squire, Winterbottom and Beattie scoring four tries between them.

The first real test would come against Provincial champions Auckland. For the majority of the first half, the Lions looked to have weathered the hail, showers, and the opposition, with Holmes and Campbell performing well, and the former setting up Irwin for a try that pushed the visitors 12-3 in front. Auckland narrowed the gap to 12-10, with the Lions clinging on grimly for 28 second half minutes. Yet in the third minute of stoppage time, a Grant Fox drop goal sent the Lions to their first defeat against a Provincial side since 1966.

The defeat was an early body blow. Fitzgerald threw badly at the lineout, with the All Black pairing of Andy Haden and Gary Whetton dominating, and questions were repeatedly asked about the absence of Colclough. "They showed us up for what we are - not very good," Telfer admitted, but both coach and skipper stated that the Lions were feeling their way into the tour.

The Auckland loss was not only a mentally damaging defeat, but a physical one too, with John O'Driscoll dislocating a rib cartilage, prompting England's Nick Jeavons to join the party. "For the Lions the honeymoon is over," wrote Don Cameron in the Times. "They must settle down to the harsh realities."

Oh what a circus

As the tour moved on, an interesting sideshow developed in the world of rugby. David Lord, an Australian sports promoter, had announced plans to establish a Kerry Packer style breakaway rugby union circus, with 208 players apparently signed up to play in two professional tournaments in 1984 and 1985.

Each player would receive £90,000 over the two years, and when Lord declared that 88 British and Irish players, including 20 members of the Lions tour, had signed a preliminary agreement, a fair amount of uncertainty enveloped New Zealand like a long white cloud.

"If any Lion is proved to have signed to play professionally, he will be sent home and replaced by another player," McBride informed the media, although the tour manager declared "I don't think any of this team would sell their soul."

Luckily, nothing came of Lord's proposals. However, there is a theory that the actions of Lord alarmed the International Rugby Board, and planted a seed that would eventually result in the rugby World Cup receiving the green light on March 21, 1985.


Soon attention would turn back to on-field matters. A 34-16 win over the Bay of Plenty saw the Lions score five tries, with winger John Carleton going over twice, but the match was notable for a brawl in the first half, that brought back memories of the famous "99" call from the 1974 South Africa tour. A fine throwing display from Deans, and five strikes against the head in the scrum, increased speculation that Fitzgerald's place in the Test team was under threat.

Despite the win, there was still a lot of work for the Lions to do, with the lack of flair in the back line a constant criticism laid at the door of the team. "We are still trying to develop a pattern of play and must improve every facet of our game," McBride admitted. Two wins - 29-17 over Wellington, and 25-18 against Manawatu - were welcome, but the performances still left a lot to be desired, with adjectives such as loose, haphazard, and jittery used to describe the Lions displays. Yet it would be a row about the northern and southern hemisphere interpretations of rucking that would dominate the lead-up to the first Test.

In the Wellington match that saw Carleton concussed and subsequently ruled out of the first Test, Holmes also left the field, requiring six stitches after having his face raked. The Manawatu match was even more brutal; Fitzgerald, Paxton, and Price were all left with head and body wounds after some over enthusiastic rucking from the hosts. "If this had happened back home the players would have been sent off," McBride said, with Fitzgerald not holding back with his thoughts: "If you are playing the ball, that's fine, but we've seen a couple of examples where we have been played instead of the ball. That's a cowardly act and a player who does that must be a coward in my book."

New Zealand's coach, Bryce Rope, hit back immediately, accusing the tourists of killing the ball at every opportunity, and labelling the rucking as soft. "It has not been up to true New Zealand fashion," Rope claimed. "It's the way we play the game over here. Wait until the Test in Christchurch next Saturday. Then the Lions will see how effective New Zealand rucking is." The row would continue, but the Lions were delighted when it was announced that Frenchman Francois Palmade had been appointed as a neutral referee for the series opener.

Before the first Test there was time for one last warm-up match, a less than convincing 26-6 win over Mid-Canterbury, involving more refereeing controversy. After numerous scrum collapses, Telfer again complained that the lack of intervention from the referee was incomprehensible, but the Lions coach must have also been slightly concerned at the sub-standard showing. Indeed, McBride later confessed that on a scale of 1-10, his team would have received minus marks for their performance.

So the Lions had failed to impress on the tour thus far, and confidence regarding their prospects of victory against the All Blacks in Christchurch was low. "Obviously we will be underdogs," Telfer said prior to the first Test. "We are not playing as well as we can and still have a lot of work to do." Hardly a ringing endorsement for the hopes of the Lions as June 4 neared.

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