The 1983 Lions tour of New Zealand looks to modern eyes like a marathon, an 18-match expedition including four tests.
But to contemporaries, not least the Lions management team of Willie John McBride and coach Jim Telfer, who had been team-mates on the 35-match trip to New Zealand, Australia and Canada in 1966, it looked more like a sprint.
A shorter trip meant fewer players were ruled out by work commitments. But brevity also brings its problems. With only seven matches and three weeks before the first Test, finding the right blend from four national squads became still more challenging.
All Black captain Andy Dalton was to tell Irish writer Karl Johnston that he was ‘astounded’ the Lions had accepted a schedule which also included matches against Canterbury and Waikato in the midweek before Tests and that he ‘doubted the All Blacks could have managed such a severe itinerary’.
Short tours, paradoxically, also led to more replacements, since any half-serious injury now ended a player’s tour rather than interrupting it.
Six replacements were needed in New Zealand following on from the eight required by the notoriously injury-hit 1980 Lions in South Africa, which was also an 18-match trip. While that team had been well-beaten, the expectations of the 1970s — the Lions’ only era of true success — remained.
But as Telfer was to reflect at the end: “We’ve sat back since 1971″. The All Blacks, characteristically had not.
British & Irish Lions’ (l-r) Steve Boyle, Ciaran Fitzgerald and Jeff Squire in training in 1983. S&G/PA Images via Getty Images
Selection reflected a period in which no one nation dominated as Wales had done in the 1970s — England had won the Grand Slam in 1980, Ireland an outright championship in 1982 followed by a share with France in 1983 and Scotland would win a Slam in the following year.
There were eight players in the initial 30 from each of the Celtic nations plus six from England, who had just recorded what remains their most recent wooden spoon, although the summoning of four Englishmen as replacements meant that they became the largest group on tour.
Most debate focussed on the captaincy. England hooker Peter Wheeler, who had played the previous seven Lions tests in 1977 and 1980 and enjoyed huge success leading Leicester was regarded as front-runner, but not helped by England who chose first Steve Smith and then John Scott to lead them through their unhappy Five Nations campaign.
Scott, along with Wales’ Eddie Butler and Scotland’s Jim Aitken — did not make the party [although Butler appeared late in the tour as a replacement] leaving Ireland’s Ciaran Fitzgerald the only incumbent national captain in the squad.
The case for Fitzgerald as captain was compelling. He had, Johnston recorded, “instilled into the side self-confidence and a sense of purpose, allied to a discipline frequently lacking in Irish teams over the years”.
Ireland had been the top-placed home nation during both his years in charge and he handled both press conferences and after-match dinners well. The seventh Irishman to lead the Lions in 12 tours, he also, as an army officer, fitted the traditional class profile of their captains.
The one question was whether he was genuinely the best available hooker. Wheeler’s exclusion from the party was widely interpreted as a political manoeuvre intended to reduce pressure on the chosen leader.
Lions’ Gwynan Evans makes a break during the 52-16 victory over West Coast in 1983. Getty Images
If this was the intention it failed, since Scotland’s Colin Deans proved as formidable an alternate as Wheeler. This was, according to all contemporary accounts, a happy tour. These Lions neither trashed hotels nor broke down into national factions.
Jeff Connor’s highly entertaining book of interviews with a notably strong-minded and assertive generation of Scottish players makes it clear that most disliked England lock Maurice Colclough, but that appears to have been the extent of it. But as Guardian correspondent David Frost recorded: “there seemed to be little joy in their football”.
By 1983 the gains made by attackers through the rule changes from 1958 on had been clawed back by defences, with an emphasis on forward power and crash-ball centres.
Rugby in the British Isles had, Frost reckoned, “to a large extent abandoned the regular use of threequarters as being too risky a business.
New Zealand had by contrast learnt from the way the 1971 Lions had exposed the limitations of their power game, with the result according to Frost that: “Almost every province passed the ball more slickly and creatively than the Lions through the midfield players”.
But the Lions’ problems extended beyond style. The giants of the 1970s were mostly gone. Only four of the team which started the first test at Christchurch had previously played a Lions test.
They faced a settled All Black side in which scavenging flanker Jock Hobbs, who had played the previous year for Lancashire club Vale of Lune, was the only newcomer to a formidable veteran pack.
Only injuries to outside-half Wayne Smith, who missed the first and last Tests, prevented them fielding the same team throughout the series.
Lions’ Peter Winterbottom makes a break during the second test in 1983, which New Zealand won 9-0. Getty Images
An early warning was issued by Auckland, whose 13-12 victory in the second match of the tour made them the first provincial team to beat the Lions since British Columbia in 1966, and was achieved to a great extent through the domination of the line-out by their giant All Black locks Andy Haden and Gary Whetton.
But the Lions still went into the first test with high hopes. And their forwards played well, raising their game to an extent which Frost reckoned matched anything he had seen in 26 years as a writer, enabling a 9-6 half-time lead.
Skipper Fitzgerald had a miserable day with his throwing in, powerful scrum-half Terry Holmes suffered a tour-ending knee injury — similar to the one which ended his participation in South Africa in 1980 — and the Lions failed to score a try.
All of their points in a 16-12 defeat, which All Black skipper Andy Dalton said left him simply “relieved” came from the boot of their mercurial red-haired Irish outside-half Ollie Campbell.
The All Blacks did score, with flanker Mark Shaw crossing after a flowing threequarter move which saw two changes of direction and the involvement of both wingers, Bernie Fraser and Stu Wilson.
Getting that close, and a run of wins over provinces, meant that the Lions remained optimistic going into the second test at Wellington.
Here their misfortune was that Athletic Park, a venue seemingly constructed to catch every gust in that notoriously windy city, produced its usual gale-force winds.
Dalton opted to play with the wind before half-time, when most British observers felt New Zealand’s 9-0 lead was nothing like enough.
But it remained intact to the end as the All Blacks adjusted superbly to the conditions.
All Blacks’ Allan Hewson in action in the fourth test against the Lions that New Zealand won 38-6 in 1983. Getty Images
Their forwards rucked and drove, scrum-half Dave Loveridge — whose play in this series would lead Frost to rate him “the best all-round scrum-half I have ever seen” — produced what Johnston called “a truly classic performance” and supreme discipline under pressure denied the Lions a single kickable shot at goal.
The 9-0 final scoreline was, Hugh McIlvanney wrote “a euphemism for disaster”. Two down with two to play, the Lions took some risks in their third test selection.
Outside-half John Rutherford, their most creative back, had been wasted as a bench-warmer while their centres were the original blunt object.
So they shifted Rutherford to centre and were rewarded by a much livelier display, highlighted just after half-time by the Scot scoring what All Black coach Bryce Rope reckoned the “try of the series”.
The Lions’ first-half score was also memorable, as the only try in the 31-match international career of Scottish wing Roger Baird.
That it was somewhat scrambled and undignified, slaloming into the advertising boards after chasing a kick-ahead, was in keeping with one of the stranger international careers.
Baird’s all-round game meant that there was no debate over his place in all four tests — he was widely recognised as being by some margin the best wing in the British Isles — but he fell victim to an era in which Scottish scoring was dominated by half-backs and back-rowers.
The Lions scored two tries to one, but again fell victim to the All Blacks in foul conditions, as the hosts’ pack and Loveridge combined in another definitive display of wet-weather rugby.
Stu Wilson scored their try, drawing level with back-rower Ian Kirkpatrick as the All Blacks’ all-time leading try-scorer with 16.
Lions’ John O”Driscoll in action against New Zealand in the fourth test in 1983. Allsport UK/Allsport
By the time his All Black career had ended, following the final test at Auckland, he was three ahead of Kirkpatrick. His hat-trick was the highlight of a devastating display of fifteen-man rugby which produced six tries in a 38-6 win.
A series whitewash gives the 1983 Lions, as Maurice Colclough proclaimed — to the disgust of Scottish team-mates — on their return at Heathrow the claim to be “the worst Lions ever”.
Yet only in the final Test, when they faced formidable, relaxed, triumphant opposition, did they look shambolic.
Rumbling over the captaincy, and in particular Fitzgerald’s throwing-in, continued through the tour but, as Johnston recorded, probably created more ill-feeling within the press party than the team.
Some players, notably the combative English flanker Peter Winterbottom, Campbell, Baird, Welsh utility back Gwyn Evans and the under-used Rutherford, emerged with credit. But the All Blacks were simply a much better team.
As Telfer admitted: “Our Lions are just not good enough”, with the threequarters in particular well below the usual standard. Whether this reflected innate deficiencies, over-conservative tactics or both was a matter for debate.
A tally of two tries in four tests told its own story, while a French journalist who arrived late in the tour expressed amazement that the Lions backs had been practising and playing together for 10 weeks.
As Johnston concluded grimly, the Lions were historically losers but had in the past compensated by playing in the style associated with individual talents like Jack Kyle, Cliff Morgan and Peter Jackson.
What was depressing about 1983 was not just that the Lions lost, but nearly all the style came from the All Blacks.
“Rugby in the British Isles has slipped. Something must be done about it,” were the concluding words of Frost’s tour account.
Change would still be a while coming — with the inaugural 1987 World Cup the final straw — but the travails of the 1983 Lions undoubtedly contributed to the mood which made it possible.
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