The survivors of the ‘battle of Christchurch’ gathered in Dublin on Saturday night to swap old war stories.
In its more excitable moments, Sky Sports was inclined to call this summer’s Lions tour ‘rugby’s greatest odyssey’.
It’s an epithet that might fit more snugly on the New Zealand tour of 1971.
Coached by the late Carwyn James, the squad contained legends of the game such as Gareth Edwards, Barry John, Gerald Davies, JPR Williams, Willie John McBride, Mike Gibson and Fergus Slattery.
It brought home the Lions’ only series victory over the All Blacks — and the considerable back-up boast of an unbeaten 20-match record against the country’s best provincial sides.
And they returned with a lifetime of enduring memories which spilled out at a reunion gala dinner organised by Terenure College rugby club.
New Ireland coach Joe Schmidt was special guest at the event and the man who will hope to guide Ireland to their first victory over Steve Hansen’s troops this coming November remembered the class of the 1971 with fond, if slightly misty, memories.
“I must say I was only about five years old at the time so my memories are hazy,” Schmidt recalled.
“I certainly remember some of the flying players: the likes of JPR and David Duckham, the guys who got on the end of the ball, the Mike Gibsons, who got on the end of it, kicked it, ran with it and did a lot things pretty productively with it.”
The All Blacks do not taste defeat very often particularly home soil and Schmidt was quick to praise this groups’ achievement.
“I think it’s incredible,” said the former Leinster boss on the 1971 Lions’ victory.
“Having grown up in the country where you start playing rugby in bare feet in the backyard, as soon as you can get out of your nappies really, and you grow from there. For a group to come over and remain unbeaten through the provinces and then win a Test series is something that is incredibly difficult to do and I think it’s a measure of the quality of the individuals that are on that team and also a measure of the camaraderie that they share.”
The reunion was a throwback to the amateur days for rugby union and simpler times. Schmidt offered a comparison between the old school days for the 1971 tour and the ultra-professional era of professional rugby.
“In this day of science where everything is measured, you have GPS to see how far players run,” Schmidt explained. “These guys had the number of empty glasses on the table to see how many pints they had drank. Of which, Willie John, allegedly, was the champion!”
Before the Lions defeated New Zealand over a fiercely-contested four-Test series, the tourists travelled the length and breadth of the country battling the finest provincial unions in the world.
The likes of Auckland, Wellington, Taranaki, Otago and Hawke’s Bay were dispatched along the way but there was one particular match that still lives long in the memory for many of the squad.
The Christchurch clash that took place a week before the first Test has long been etched in Lions folklore, such was the brutality of the contest.
Wales and Lions stalwart Gareth Edwards played in that violent meeting with Canterbury at Lancaster Park and remembers a game that bordered on primal at times.
“I’ve been quoted as saying there’s only been twice when I’ve ever been scared in life playing rugby. Once, was playing for Cardiff against Neath,” Edwards explained.
“The second was that Canterbury match. It was just a week before that first Test match, and the press were getting the psychological warfare going saying this will be the Test to see what the Lions are really made of.
“It was the most brutal game that we played in on that trip.”
Edwards continued: “About five minutes in, we had a scrum. The ball shot out at the back and I picked it up quickly and darted around the blindside and playing number eight for Canterbury that day was a guy called Alex ‘Grizz’ Wylie. He was a hard boy, but I got the better of him because the ball had shot out.
“I got tackled into touch and I remember as I was walking back feeling quite pleased with myself, he looked at me and said ‘hey scrum-half, you do that again and I’ll break your neck’, so I just turned around to him and said ‘p**s off’!
“Anyway, about three minutes in, I had another chance and I wish I listened to him. He tried to decapitate me and almost did.
“In the meantime, Ray McLaughlin, who looks demure now and is one of Ireland’s top businessmen, was an assassin on the pitch that day.
“Grizz Wylie was still making himself a nuisance and fair play, he went up to Grizz and caught him a real good one.
“I remember the blood spurting out of his cut eye onto my jersey but unfortunately for Ray, he broke his hand in the process so that was the end of the tour for him.”
The anecdotes flowed throughout the night, with Slattery regaling the sizeable audience with a story of himself and Scottish prop Ian McLaughlin going on a boar hunting expedition with a group of skilled Maori hunters.
“We all went off hunting boar except for that b****** there,” joked Slattery pointing at McLaughlin.
“He sat on a rock on top of the mountain and relaxed for the whole day.”
Victory over the All Blacks would elude Slattery in an Ireland jersey, but the former Blackrock College flanker can count the 1971 tour amongst his highest achievements as well as featuring in that epic Barbarians victory over the men in black in 1973.
“Of all the rugby nations that I ever wanted to play against… New Zealand would be number one, and may even be number two as well,” he said. “When you’re in New Zealand and a 75-year-old granny comes up to you and starts talking to you about front row play that you know absolutely bugger-all about, you know you’re in trouble, but it did happen and it still happens today.”
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