Give us a good fight.
The day before the All Blacks’ crucial third Test against the touring British and Irish Lions in 1971, Brian Lochore’s phone rang.
“We need you,” said a voice on the end of the line.
The legendary number 8 was basking in retirement on his Wairarapa farm when All Blacks coach Bob Duff called. His team was ravaged with injuries and in dire need. The series was tied 1-1.
Lochore scrawled “Gone to Wellington, playing Test tomorrow” on a scrap of paper and stuck it on the fridge for his wife.
An hour later he was on a train bound for the capital. The following night New Zealand lost 13-3 to the Lions and subsequently the series.
Lochore found himself on the wrong side of All Blacks history.
In 13 series over 129 years, the 1971 New Zealand team bears the distinct dishonour of being the only one to lose a Test series to the Lions.
But despite the All Blacks’ historic dominance, the tour is revered beyond much else. A Lions series is considered the ultimate by players and coaches, in some ways more so than a World Cup.
It’s reflected in ticket prices - between $149 and $449 for All Blacks games. An article in The Guardian suggested it might be “price gouging”. Yet more than 20,000 British and Irish fans are expected to make the trip.
The five-week tour begins on June 3 when the Lions take on the Barbarians. They’ll then play New Zealand’s Super Rugby teams. The first All Blacks Test is June 24.
“[It will be] one of the biggest sporting events ever seen in New Zealand,” said NZ Rugby chief executive Steve Tew a year ago. “This is the most eagerly anticipated rugby tour of recent times.”
In understanding just why Lions tours are so hallowed, the ‘71 tour is a good place to start.
The All Blacks lost the first Test 9-3, won the second 22-12, lost the third 13-3 and drew the final match at Eden Park 14-14.
“It was a deserved series victory and I think most serious rugby supporters recognised that,” says Lochore.
“We’d had such a strong period during the 60s and then there were a lot of retirements after a big tour of South Africa that cast us into a rebuilding phase and we weren’t a strong unit.”
Fullback Laurie Mains says the Lions team of ‘71 was one of the strongest he ever played.
“This was a team with star players across the park and they were really well led by coach Carwyn James - he was very astute and essentially out-thought All Black management,” he recalls.
“The public was obviously pretty disappointed, but the Lions came together and played as if they were one nation. We’ve seen Lions teams not do that and get walloped.”
The All Blacks’ show-stopping winger of the 1970s, Bryan Williams, remembers a dark period.
“The expectation of any All Blacks side is that they win. It’s the way it’s been for donkey’s years. That comes with such a wonderful record over 100 years,” he says.
“When we don’t win there’s often lots of soul-searching and recriminations and things like that. It’s the same now as it was then.”
He talks about the ‘71 tour with wistful nostalgia. “They had some of the all-time greats - Gareth Edwards, J.P.R. Williams, Mike Gibson, Barry John, John Dawes, Mervyn Davies - the names still mean a lot to me because they were great players and great guys.”
“But that doesn’t mean I’m proud of the fact we lost.”
His most distinct memory is an incredible drop-goal by J.P.R. Williams late in the fourth Test to seal a draw and the series win.
Ian Kirkpatrick, who later captained the side, has never forgotten the kick. “We all know what happened in 1971.”
“J.P.R definitely didn’t kick it often and this one he hit from halfway.”
Kirkpatrick says playing the Lions “was always something to look forward to”.
“In the 1970s they’d pack in these big crowds they probably shouldn’t have and the atmosphere was great. Because they didn’t come often it was always such a big thing. The public loved and embraced it. They were good rugby days.”
Legendary rugby commentator Keith Quinn broadcast his first Test match during the ill-fated series.
Despite the weaknesses of the ‘71 All Blacks, he says there was public backlash.
“By then we had already developed our mentality that the All Blacks were pretty damn good and we hated to lose any game - that’s an attitude that’s steeped in our rugby history and one that is still as strong as ever.”
At the time, Brian Lochore says South Africa tours were considered the ultimate. That’s now changed.
“Lions games were definitely special for me … but these days I think the Lions would be the biggest challenge to New Zealand’s dominance,” he says.
The lure is impossible for players to ignore.
“The tours come around once every 12 years and many players don’t get the opportunity to play the Lions. Many careers don’t last 12 years. It’s on everyone’s bucket lists and there’s always an incredible amount of hype,” says Bryan Williams.
“They bring a lot of supporters who are always very loud and colourful. They’ll expect their team to win, as we do too.”
Williams considers having played the Lions a “massive source of pride”.
“I guess the fact I was part of the only side to lose a series doesn’t fill me with pride, but I still look back with fond memories.”
Laurie Mains may have lost in ‘71, but as a coach 23 years later, he reversed the score and led the All Blacks to a 2-1 series win. He took his shot at redemption. “I was immensely proud.”
“The series went to a decider in Auckland and I remember walking past a Scottish radio announcer telling people he couldn’t possibly see any way the All Blacks could win,” he says.
“Of course, that proved the best motivation I could have gotten and I sure passed it onto the boys - we won comfortably.”
Mains says the combination of four strong teams - England, Wales, Ireland and Scotland - coming together is incredibly exciting. “It’s also, very simply, about the colours - the red with the white shorts and green and black socks - all of those things add to the prestige.”
The Lions were swept the last time they visited in 2005. The moment most often replayed was a controversial spear tackle by Kevin Mealamu and Tana Umaga on Lions captain Brian O'Driscoll one minute into the first Test. O'Driscoll didn’t play again on the tour. From a competitive standpoint, the tour was a damp squib.
This year, despite the All Blacks’ unquestioned ascendancy in world rugby, Brian Lochore expects a good fight. The side has won two World Cups since the last visit.
He says many Lions teams of the past haven’t been able to gel. Coached by Kiwi Warren Gatland, he suspects that won’t be a problem this year. “That’s what makes it so exciting - It’s because of the challenge. It’s always going to be a challenge when four rugby playing nations come together.”
Keith Quinn says many of the fans he’s talked to expect the Lions to win at least one Test.
“But for me, if the Lions were to win the series, it would be a major shock to New Zealand. It would be a heck of an upset,” he says.
“The Lions have had strong teams the past few tours but we’ve sent them home beaten every time, and I’ll think we’ll do that again this year. Winning this series will just be another confirmation of our dominance.”
Bryan Williams isn’t so sure.
“I don't know if it will be comfortable, even if the expectation is the All Blacks will win. But that doesn't mean to say they will. The Lions look a very well-balanced team to me and it will take a lot to beat them.”
Laurie Mains is also skeptical.
“I think it would be fair to say the average supporter is hoping for a whitewash, but personally, I’m not so sure that’s happen. This Lions team has a lot of ability.”
Despite the ignominy of having played for the only All Blacks side to have lost a series to the Lions, Mains, like all of his former teammates, hopes that’s still the case in six week’s time.