Book Review: ‘When Lions Roared’

A COMPELLING ACCOUNT OF 1971 LIONS TOUR TO NEW ZEALAND

First Test New Zealand vs The British Lions 26/6/1971 Barry John of the British Lions is pursued by Tane Norton of New Zealand ©INPHO/Getty Images 52644255GI_E998250001

ON 7th MAY 1971, the British and Irish Lions touring squad flew out of Heathrow Airport on a three-month odyssey to the other side of the world. They had a four-hour delay at Frankfurt and three hours on the tarmac in Delhi before another stop to refuel in Tehran. From there, they headed onwards to Hong Kong, caught a bus to Kowloon and a ferry across the bay to the Hilton Hotel, which was the starting point for the sort of epic drinking session which the mere thought of would cause the modern day professional to suffer a nervous breakdown. 

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This was 35 years before Facebook and Twitter had started invading our lives, and there was not a single media officer on the trip. The players were more than capable of looking after themselves. In fact, this particular mammoth boozing expedition was organised with the specific aim of preventing any adverse publicity escaping from the camp before it had even been conceived.

“The tactic was to entertain the media lavishly. As long as you had more on them than they had on you, the rest of the tour could go with a swing,” explains flanker Fergus Slattery, quoted in ‘When Lions Roared’, which is the highly readable and thoroughly entertaining account of this legendary trip. The book has been painstakingly compiled by Tom English and Peter Burns in time to become the ideal bedside companion for what we all hope will be another magical Lions summer.

The following day the squad flew cattle-class to Brisbane for two warm-up games. They were dropped off outside their hotel at 7am the next morning and discovered that there was nobody there to let them in.

I just sat on the pavement with my bags, desperate to get inside and get some sleep. We played Queensland the next day, a two-thirty kick-off. We were shattered,” recalls John Spencer, who has catain of England at the time and is tour manager on the 2017 expedition.

The Lions lost their opening match of the tour against a limited Queensland outfit the following day.

“I was on the field. I wouldn’t say I was playing, but I was on the field. With all the travel, we were so tired. All I wanted to do at half-time was lie down,” admits a sheepish Willie John McBride.

It was an inauspicious start, and given that the touring side had managed just one win and one draw from 12 Test Matches in the previous three tours to New Zealand during the post war period, it was no great surprise that an All Black clean-sweep was being widely predicted.

But Carwyn James, the enigmatic Welsh coach in charge, was unperturbed. He had a plan and he was sure he had the players capable of implementing that vision. His confidence proved to be well-founded.

The Lions hit New Zealand like a hurricane, rampaging from town to town and tearing down provincial all-comers as they went. It was not always easy (especially against a North Auckland side powered by three brother called Ken, Brian and Sid Going on the last Saturday match before the fourth Test) and it was not always pretty (the ‘Battle of Canterbury’ on the Saturday before the first Test has gone down in rugby folklore as one of the most brutal matches every played) – but they got the job done with a record of 20 wins from 20 provincial matches in the most hostile rugby environment on earth.

And when things really clicked the tourists were sublime. The 47-9 demolition of Wellington in game five was one of the most accomplished displays by any Lions team of any era; while Welsh wizard Barry John’s magical try against New Zealand Universities four days before the second Test gobsmacked a packed house at Athletic Park in Wellington into stunned silence.

But the Test series was the big prize, and the Lions delivered on that front as well – winning the series 2-1, with the fourth and final Test drawn thanks to a sensational JPR Williams drop-goal. Each step of the journey is relayed in technicolour detail in ‘When Lions Roared’.

It is a great yarn that should be revisited again and again for as long as the wonderful game of rugby is played; and this book does a cracking job of bringing it all to life with first hand interviews or reproduced testimonies from almost all the major figures in the story.

The story belts along at terrific pace, with the authors expertly weaving together the recollections and anecdotes of such luminaries as Gerald Davies, Willie John McBride and Gareth Davies from the Lions camp; the great Colin Meads, Bryan Williams and Fergie McCormack from New Zealand; plus several insightful interlopers who played a small role in the drama along the way.

There is plenty of humour, but more than a hint of pathos as well.

Barry John picked up the soubriquet ‘The King’ on the tour but back in his native Wales he struggled to cope with the super-star status he had inherited and ended up walking away from the game just over seven months later when he was 27-years-old.

Carwyn James, the architect of the Lions success, was never embraced as a coach by the Welsh Rugby Union, and battled his own demons before enduring a lonely death in an Amsterdam hotel room at the tragically young age of just 53.

The really fascinating thing about this book is the bizarre juxtaposition of comical anecdotes of classic rugby amateurism such as John (the great star of the tour) forgetting his boots before the pivotal third Test; with fascinating insights into the deep rugby intellect of the likes of John, James and Irish prop Ray McLoughlin, who did not need the benefit of multi-angled video replays and wall-to-wall statistical analysis in order to strip the game down to its essence so that they could formulate a plan to overcome whatever challenge it was they faced on that given day.

This book is a poignant reminder that it is possible to take rugby seriously, without taking yourself too seriously – a lesson that the most recent inheritors of the wonderful Lions legacy will do well to keep in mind this summer.

About David Barnes 2968 Articles
David has worked as a freelance rugby journalist since 2004 covering every level of the game in Scotland for publications including he Herald/Sunday Herald, The Sunday Times, The Telegraph, The Scotsman/Scotland on Sunday/Evening News, The Daily Record, The Daily Mail/Mail on Sunday and The Sun.