View from the back row: Send in the clowns

Images courtesy: The Telegraph


IT’S time the Lions management took New Zealand off the Thomas Cook tour list. Why go there when it’s become as enticing, and the natives just as cordial, as a day trip to Iran or South Sudan?

Click on image to purchase the definitive book covering the glorious 1971 Lions tour to New Zealand.

The newspaper cartoon of Warren Gatland caricatured as a clown just isn’t funny. Nor is it original, an identical image having been used to rubbish Wallabies head coach Michael Cheika just before last year’s Bledisloe Cup final.

The guilty party on both occasions is the New Zealand Herald – a sort of wannabe Sun without any of the tabloid skills – who claim it was a response to Gatland’s suggestion that the All Blacks don’t always play by the rules. But even the most rabid AB fan must be tired of cheerleaders posing as journalists, people whose only job in life is to belittle the opposition. In the case of these Lions, it is not necessary.

The Herald is a dire publication, even by that country’s standards, managing to blend boorishness with pomposity. Try the ludicrous ostentation of rugby columnist Gregor Paul: “Implying the All Blacks are dirty is the unforgivable sin. Questioning their playing ethics and morals is a line that can’t be crossed.” Oh really, as in the ‘ethics’ of the All Blacks players who took Brian O’Driscoll out of the first Test in 2005?

Paul, I’m sorry to say, is a Scot who married a Kiwi and emigrated some 12 years ago. He used to sit close by me in the newsroom in Scotland on Sunday, I often wonder how an Edinburgh business writer managed to mutate into the Katie Hopkins of New Zealand rugby.


I don’t know if it is still there, but there used to be a sophisticated weighing machine by a pillar in the middle of the changing areas at Murrayfield. Every player had to check his weight before and after training and then write the results down on a nearby wall chart.

I would watch this, with only marginal interest, until an alert member of the SRU staff objected, carrying on like a member of the Gestapo who had just caught a British spy trying to decipher one of his coding machines. I got away with a ban for life from this area of Murrayfield.

It wasn’t going to give me sleepless nights, but I did begin to wonder why would anyone take exception to someone noting the weights of individual rugby players? The details were available to anyone willing to take the time and trouble to find As far as the SRU and general public were concerned it was no secret at all.

It was when I checked the weights of players on the website with the details I’d taken backstage at Murrayfield that I realized someone had been telling porkies. Some of the differences were some 6kgs. Ally Hogg, for example, was listed at 109kg when I knew for a fact he was 101kg.  Several players, too, seemed to have germinated like buddleias from under 6ft to well over, Chris Paterson being a notable example.

I knew then the need for such hyperbole: it was to fool the opposition into believing that Scottish players were just as bulky and just as tall and just as fast as anyone else. The SRU were Malcolm and his men hoodwinking Macbeth at Birnam Wood or, if you prefer, the primary school boys we all remember from our youth warning their antagonists: ‘My dad’s bigger than yours!’.


Desperate to find the All Blacks getting badly beaten up by Lions somewhere in history, I went on YouTube and to Cardiff Arms Park of January 27, 1973. The ‘Lions’ here were called the ‘Barbarians’ but, with the same coach and 12 survivors from the series win over New Zealand two years previously, no-one was being fooled by that. True, there was no Barry John, but Phil Bennett was a more than adequate replacement at 10. There were seven Welshmen (familiar?) and one Scot (even more familiar?).

I managed the full 80 minutes, hailed these days as one of the greatest games ever, which should you just look on it it as 30 amateurs doing their best, it possibly is. In effect it was a dire affair, enlivened only by a few tries once a few players managed to hang onto the ball for longer than a couple of seconds without dropping it. The pass to Gareth Edwards was forward and if it hadn’t been for a French referee willing to ignore a succession of infringements they’d probably still be at it.  As for the claim that it was ‘the greatest try ever’, coming from the North of England I’d been used to  seeing tries like that every weekend … in rugby league matches .

Much as I love to see the All Blacks getting beat I have to say this was a poor side.  Their prize prop, Keith Murdoch, was sent home after a punch-up in Cardiff’s Angel Hotel and they were captained by the dour Ian Kirkpatrick, a fine flanker but no Wilson Whineray.

They had also got into a losing habit by this stage, beaten by Llanelli, North-West Counties (in Workington of all places), Midlands Counties and France, as well as drawing 3-3 with Munster. Their ‘Haka’ is still regarded as the worst ever and we all know how unforgiving that can be for anyone in New Zealand.


By the time they faced the Barbarians they were ready for home and it’s fair to say they’d already been seriously stitched-up, several times.

About Jeff Connor 12 Articles
JEFF CONNOR was born in Manchester, went to school at Bury and lives in Lytham. He has worked for a number of national newspapers including the Daily Express, Daily Star, Scottish Sun, Scotland on Sunday and Scottish Mail on Sunday. He is the author of 12 books, including: Wide Eyed and Legless, the classic account of the 1987 Tour de France; The Lost Babes, the moving story of the Munich air disaster; The Philosophy of Risk, a biography of the tragic mountaineer Dougal Haston; Pointless, a season with Britain’s worst football team; Up and Under, an inside account of the 2001 Lions tour to Australia; and Giants of Scottish Rugby, which contains exclusive interviews with 40 of the nation’s greatest players. He recently published his first novel: Looking for Lulu.