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1966: ‘Haphazard’ Lions continue decade to forget

One factor over which no Lions team has control is the quality of their opposition. On this basis the 1966 squad could feel distinctly unlucky. They ran into a formidably good All Blacks team which was in the process of putting together a then-unprecedented run of 17 consecutive Test victories, spread across four years.

Veteran New Zealand broadcaster Winston McCarthy was to write that “As a pack I have never seen the like of that of 1966″. Forwards like prop Ken Gray, Colin Meads — who played the entire series paired with brother Stan at lock — flankers Waka Nathan and Kel Tremain and skipper Brian Lochore, taking over seamlessly from the long-serving Wilson Whineray, figure to this day in ‘greatest ever’ debates. The All Blacks came close to fielding an unchanged XV throughout the series, Malcolm Dick’s appearance on the wing in the final Test in place of the injured Ian Smith the only change.

It is entirely possible that the 1966 Lions could have got everything right, and still lost the series — a plea which might have been echoed by their successors of 2005. But like Clive Woodward’s squad, the 1966 team were co-conspirators in their own downfall.


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The Lions did at least at last appoint a coach, the 1950 Lion John Robins. But sending him to New Zealand officially labelled as ‘assistant manager’, with an ill-defined set of responsibilities, was to negate any real benefits.

The choice of captain looked straightforward. Wales had been led to the championship by Alun Pask, a No. 8 of sufficient all-round skills to have played for the Lions as a blindside against South Africa in 1962 and, in emergency, at fullback in the 1965 Triple Crown decider in Dublin.

Ireland’s Ray McLoughlin looked a potential rival until his analytical, suffer-no-fools approach grated on his selectors to the point at which he lost the captaincy in mid-season. His replacement, Tom Kiernan, was not in the Lions squad. Nor were England’s Budge Rodgers or Scotland’s Ian Laughland.

But the choice fell upon Scottish lock Mike Campbell-Lamerton. An army officer who played for London Scottish, he had excelled in South Africa in 1962, playing all four tests at No. 8. He had been appointed Scotland’s captain in 1965 but, while retaining his place in the team, was returned to the ranks after two matches.

He was a man of substance with a distinguished service record who was to wind up as Bursar of Balliol College, Oxford. His duties on tour were to include, he recorded, making 257 speeches. But he came to epitomise British rugby’s propensity for preferring the right sort of chap to the right player when it came to appointing captains.

Debates over his own form, and whether he should be in the Test team, became a running sore on tour. Colin Meads, who formed a classic ‘odd couple’ friendship with the Lions leader, reckoned he “lacked only the common touch”. But New Zealand journalist Terry McLean reckoned he had “neither the background nor the intellectual grasp of high-level captaincy”.

In particular he took a traditional view of the roles of captain and coach, marginalising Robins — who was further handicapped by a tendon injury which sidelined him for several weeks. Manager Des O’Brien, so overwhelmed by the role that the New Zealanders at one point funded a recuperative break in Fiji , was at odds with both of them.

Outside-half David Watkins recalled that Robins “trained the team and got us fit, but had no brief to coach us or determine our tactical approach”. O’Brien and Campbell-Lamerton “seemed unable to make up their own minds, let alone agree between, what approach we should adopt.” The outcome was a team which “often resembled a ship with three rudders all steering in different directions.”

Lions captain Mike Campbell-Lamerton in action on the successful Australia leg of the ’66 tour. Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

This, ironically, was a squad packed with players who became distinguished coaches. Two back rowers — the Scot Jim Telfer and Ireland’s Noel Murphy, on his third Lions trip, were to coach the Lions. A third, flanker Derrick Grant, coached Scotland after leading Hawick to five consecutive national league championships, lock Willie John McBride coached Ireland and fullback Don Rutherford became England’s national coaching administrator.

Pask was a product of the teacher-training courses devised by, among others, Robins, at Loughborough. Might fears of the coach wielding real influence have been a reason for antediluvian elements in the Lions hierarchy to deny Pask the captaincy?

The Lions were not short of attacking talent, particularly in midfield. Watkins was a brilliantly individualistic playmaker at outside-half while Ireland’s Mike Gibson, on the first of five Lions tours [a tribute both to his genius and to the frequency of tours over this period, with nine between 1959 and 1983] was in McLean’s reckoning “one of the best backs of all time.”

And they performed eye-catchingly on the opening Australian segment of the tour, demolishing Australia 31-0, then the heaviest defeat in Wallaby history, in Brisbane. But this was, Watkins reckoned, the worst thing that could have happened to them, turning a previously confident team into a cocksure one.

And sub-tropical Brisbane was no preparation for the harsher climate of New Zealand’s South Island, where the Lions opened with a 14-8 loss to Southland. By the time this had been followed on the next two Saturdays by the usual defeat against Otago and a loss to Wellington, the tourists were in a state of disarray from which they never fully recovered.

There was also mounting disgruntlement with the physical aggression of New Zealand rugby, which would culminate between the first and second Tests by captain-for-the-day Telfer’s comment after beating Auckland 8-6 that “I’m not going to say today’s game was dirty, because every game in New Zealand has been dirty.”

By then the tourists had worse problems. They competed reasonably well in the first half of the first Test at Dunedin, trailing by only 8-3 at the break, but were wholly uncompetitive in the second half and ended up losing 20-3. This pattern of inability to last the pace was to be repeated throughout the series. The aggregate first-half score in the four tests was 32-26 to New Zealand, with the tourists leading at half-time in the second test and level in the third. In the second halves it was 47-6 to the All Blacks.

While Fred Allen had taken over as All Black coach, this was not yet the freeflowing team which would amaze British and French critics with its unfettered brilliance the following year, but one still in transition from the grinding forward-oriented game of the earlier 1960s. The speed and length of Chris Laidlaw’s pass from scrum-half gave their midfield time and space not enjoyed by earlier All Black teams, but with the crash-baller Ian MacRae setting up second phase possession at centre they were efficient rather than flamboyant. Yet, they still scored at least three tries in each of the four Tests, piling up an aggregate advantage of 13-4 across the series.

“You guys from the British Isles believe in fairy tales.”

Colin Meads

While no match for the All Black juggernaut, the Lions pack was not short of talent. Irish lock Ronnie Lamont was named as one of the five players of the year by the New Zealand Almanack. Murphy, McBride – on the second of his five Lions trips – Pask, Telfer, McLoughlin and the uncapped Llanelli lock Delme Thomas all made a good impression on McCarthy. The problem, the veteran New Zealand broadcaster reckoned, was that “somehow all the good ones never seemed to get selected together.”

Campbell-Lamerton, whom nobody faulted for courage, dropped himself for the second Test. With Pask also left out, the captaincy went to Watkins. One of the oddities of Lions history is that while there have been so few Welsh tour captains, five of the six deputies thrust into the role in tests since 1950 — Bleddyn Williams, Cliff Morgan, Watkins, Gareth Thomas and Alun-Wyn Jones — have been Welsh. English scrum-half Dickie Jeeps, who deputised for Arthur Smith in his 13th and last Lions test [then a record] in South Africa in 1962 is the sole exception.

The restructured team produced the one real contest of the series, leading at half-time and going down only 16-12. While the All Blacks scored three tries, from flanker Tremain, Meads and wing Tony Steel, to none by the Lions, the tourists were twice denied likely tries when referee Kevin Murphy awarded them penalties rather than playing the advantage rule.

One of the stars of that improved performance had been Delme Thomas, pulled down near the All Black line in the final minute after a 40-yard solo charge. The young lock’s reward for this was to be moved to prop for the third Test, not the impossibility it would be nowadays but still strange when alternatives included the formidable McLoughlin, to accommodate Campbell-Lamerton’s return.

This time the Lions went down 19-6, with Nathan crossing twice, while Lamont and Watkins at least claimed their first tries of the series. Campbell-Lamerton left himself out again in the final Test, which the All Blacks won 24-11 to complete their first four-match whitewash of the Lions.

The final match is mostly remembered for Meads laying out Watkins — an incident which British observers generally felt should have been followed by marching orders [eventually issued to the great lock at Murrayfield a year later], but most New Zealand opinion reckoned to be both a proportionate response to shirt-pulling and over-acting by the victim.

The Lions even managed to go down to British Columbia during their Canadian stopover on the way home. The lesson to be taken from this was voiced by Meads, who had seen plenty of the Lions, beating them with a King Country-Wanganui select as well as in all four tests. Speaking after the final Test to McBride — an opponent he genuinely respected — he said : “You guys from the British Isles believe in fairy tales. There is no way, with your haphazard approach, that you will ever beat us.”

That lesson was to be reinforced two years later when the Lions went down 3-0 with one draw to the Springboks, scoring only one try — by McBride — in the entire series. Their aggregate record for their three tours in the 1960s was no wins and 10 defeats, with two draws. Something different would clearly be needed in the 1970s.

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1966: ‘Haphazard’ Lions continue decade to forget

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