Thursday, 8 June 2017

1983: New Zealand v Lions First Test

This piece follows on from my previous blog on the warm-up matches of the British and Irish Lions tour of New Zealand in 1983:

http://that1980ssportsblog.blogspot.com/2017/06/1983-british-and-irish-lions-warm-up-matches.html

Lions to the slaughter

There could be no doubting that the British and Irish Lions were heavy outsiders as the first Test against New Zealand at Christchurch neared. Don Cameron, writing in the Times, noted that the team were a week or two short in their preparation, and the general consensus of opinion seemed to be that the Lions did not possess enough flair and potency in their back division to trouble the All Blacks.

The final XV selected by Jim Telfer and Willie John McBride was largely seen as uninspiring by the journalists following the tour. The pack looked solid, and the half-back combination of Terry Holmes and Ollie Campbell provided hope, yet the perceived predictability and unexciting nature of centres Robert Ackerman and David Irwin was used as a stick to beat the team with. The cries to include Michael Kiernan would get louder after the first Test.

"Obviously we will be the underdogs," Telfer told the media before the match. "We are not playing as well as we can and we still have a lot of work to do," he added, with a huge dose of caution. A lack of preparation, a "dull" back line, an inexperienced team - only Campbell, Graham Price, Maurice Colclough, and Jeff Squire had played a Lions international before - and a coach hinting that the team were not quite ready yet. Hardly encouraging.

It wasn't all doom and gloom, though. The Daily Mirror's Chris Lander provided some positive words for any Lions fans getting up at 8am to watch the delayed coverage of the match. "They (the Lions) are the most impressive bunch of no-hopers I've seen. New Zealand rugby is in for a shock and I think the Lions could have them by the throat on Saturday."

New Zealand: new regime

Having completed a 2-1 Bledisloe Cup win over Australia in September 1982, New Zealand rugby was now under a new coach-captaincy partnership of Bryce Rope and hooker Andy Dalton, the latter taking over from Graham Mourie. An injury to Wayne Smith in a trial match saw Ian Dunn handed a debut at fly half, with first caps also awarded to centre Warwick Taylor, and flanker Jock Hobbs, who had been given the unenviable task of replacing Mourie.

On the eve of the first Test, new skipper Dalton would be dragged into the ongoing row that had developed concerning complaints from the the tourists about the rucking style used by New Zealand's provincial sides. "I have never played in a New Zealand side that has gone out to kick," Dalton protested. "I think the Lions manager has been over-reacting and tried a bit of gamesmanship in the week."

A certain amount of the spotlight would fall on French referee Francois Palmade, who was adamant that nothing would go wrong on his watch. "I have refereed the New Zealanders before and know the style they prefer," Palmade stated. "As long as there are no illegal tactics that is okay by me." The French Post Office Inspector, who had taken four weeks leave to officiate in the series, did not seem phased at all, adding that the New Zealanders approach to the sport was fine in comparison to the "dirty" methods he felt were used by clubs in the French domestic game.

Teams

New Zealand: Hewson, Wilson, Pokere, Taylor, Fraser, Dunn, Loveridge; Ashworth, Dalton, Knight, Whetton, Haden, Shaw, Hobbs, Mexted

Lions: MacNeill (I), Ringland (I), Ackerman (W), Irwin (I), Baird (S), Campbell (I), Holmes (W); Stephens (W), Fitzgerald (I), Price (W), Colclough (E), Norster (W), Squire (W), Winterbottom (E), Paxton (S)

The match

Despite the pessimism/realism surrounding the chances of a Lions win, the team would put in a sterling performance, one that would leave the players and management ruing a missed opportunity. Throughout the game, Ollie Campbell was superb, nipping in and out around the fringes, and kicking brilliantly. It would be his penalty that would give the Lions an early lead, and although Alan Hewson would reply with two penalties, Campbell's drop goal left the teams level after 20 minutes.

From this point on, the half belonged to the Lions, although the lineout work of skipper Fitzgerald remained a concern, the hooker, celebrating his 31st birthday, warned by Palmade for consistently not throwing straight (one incident prompted the New Zealand co-commentator on this coverage to proclaim "that was one of the worst throw-ins I've ever seen in Test rugby").

Despite this, the forwards competed well, and one break from a Fitzgerald throw almost brought the Lions first try. After great work from Graham Price and Robert Norster, the Lions were just metres from the New Zealand line. But the decision of Ackerman to ignore Trevor Ringland, and go for the line himself, proved critical, as the try scoring opportunity was spurned.

Just after Campbell had levelled the scores, the Lions received a blow when Terry Holmes was forced to limp off, his tour over after the scrum half had suffered a medial knee ligament injury, just as he had in South Africa in 1980. His replacement, Roy Laidlaw, slotted in seamlessly, and as the Lions continued to pile on the pressure, the Scot almost set up a try. An up and under by Laidlaw was claimed by Irwin in front of a hesitant Hewson, and a drive from the Lions saw them cross the try line. Sadly, the ball was not grounded, and the All Blacks could breathe a sigh of relief.

For all the Lions dominance, there was only a Campbell penalty to show for it, and as the teams went to the break with the visitors 9-6 in front, there was a tinge of disappointment that the Lions had not taken advantage of their period on the front foot. Come the end of the second half, the inability of the Lions to score heavily whilst on top was telling.

Hewson had been booed after missing three penalties in the first half, the crowd none too happy that the full back had been selected in front of local favourite Robbie Deans. However, Hewson did manage to slot over a penalty after Fitzgerald had been caught offside, to level the scores after 51 minutes, and just five minutes later, a lineout won against the throw led to the decisive moment of the match.

The ball was worked between the New Zealand back line, with Stu Wilson in particular making an incisive run, before play spread to the left wing. Bernie Fraser's pass inside was poor, yet a lucky deflection off of Ackerman's shoulder saw Mark Shaw collect the ball, to score the only try of the match and put New Zealand 13-9 in front. Some felt there had been a forward pass by Pokere in the lead-up, but Palmade awarded the try.

Somehow Hewson missed his conversion, bringing more derision, but it didn't look too costly, as briefly New Zealand started to move the ball at speed and looking for the kill. The Lions regrouped, however, and when Campbell kicked his third successful penalty out of three, just one point separated the teams with ten minutes remaining.

Campbell continued to probe, and good work between the fly half and fellow countryman Irwin did raise hopes for a fleeting moment. But when Hugo MacNeill slipped whilst attempting a drop goal, the Lions last chance had been squandered.

The match ended with New Zealand camped near the Lions' try-line, and when a desperate clearance from Campbell landed in the hands of Hewson, the final nail in the coffin was hammered home.

Hewson may have endured a lot of barracking, but his 45-yard drop goal brought cheers to the 44,000 crowd, and clinched a 16-12 victory for the All Blacks, with the Lions unable to respond in the minute remaining. For New Zealand there was relief; for the Lions, frustration at what might have been.

Reaction

The press response to the Lions display emphasised how well the team had performed on the day, even if they didn't quite do enough to pull off a shock win. Cameron noted that "The grizzled old lion of British rugby roared mightily, but still failed to make the decisive bite," also reporting that the match represented a "marvellous transformation" by the touring side.

The Daily Express praised the efforts of the Lions, although the report described the match as "the one that got away," and the safety first option of the team selection was criticised. "Centres Robert Ackerman and David Irwin did a magnificent job as knock-down merchants but lacked the attacking flair to prise open the New Zealand defence. The situation cries out for Michael Kiernan, who has been the best attacking three-quarter on tour."

"We made too many mistakes when we had broken through and gained half a yard," bemoaned coach Telfer. "You cannot win Test matches on mistakes." On the other side of the fence, the hosts knew they had managed to get away with a sub-standard display. "I only felt relief at the final whistle," Dalton revealed. "It was even harder than I anticipated."

Lander was just as bullish after the match, as he had been in his preview. "The All Blacks are not the supermen the world of rugby would have you believe. After running them so close here in Christchurch in the first Test, the British Lions can still take the series." But even the positive Lander knew that the tourists had to dramatically improve their back play to stand a chance of levelling the series in Wellington.

With two weeks to the second Test, there was time for the Lions to lick their wounds, and try and bounce back from the feeling of disappointment that swamped them after Christchurch. Yet as the tour progressed, their failure to win the first Test became more and more painful, with each subsequent Test defeat confirming the impression that the opening match really was the one that got away.

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