What history teaches us when Lions tours go to a decider

Looking back at the 10 times when the series was still alive going into the final game

Warren Gatland's Lions have a chance to win a Test series when they face New Zealand in the third and final match at Eden Park on Saturday. Only the touring party of 1971 have managed that feat against the All Blacks but during the course of Lions history they have been quite a number of squads that have courted either glory or parity in that final game.

1910 Lions tour to South Africa

Dr Tom Smyth become the first Irishman to lead a Lions touring party that contained eight players who would never play for their country. Selection had been particularly difficult; there were nine variations to the squad from the original listing in the Times on April 13th to the party that boarded the Edinburgh Castle ship five weeks later.

The Lions had to recruit during the tour, the most famous of which was Australian Tom Richards, who happened to be in South Africa at the time. He qualified for the tourists because he had played for Bristol in the 1909-10 season. In 2001 the Tom Richards Trophy was first played for between the Lions and the Wallabies.


Smyth missed the first Test through injury, a game the Springboks won 14-10 with Irish wing Alex Foster scoring a try. South Africa were strong favourites to win the second Test at Port Elizabeth but with Smyth returning and a virtuoso performance from their outstanding player, Charles Henry 'Cherry' Pillman, the Lions upset the odds with an 8-3 triumph and the series headed for a decider at Newlands in Cape Town.

In keeping with the Lions' dreadful luck with injury they lost fullback Williams after 10 minutes, playing the remainder of the game with 14 players, a handicap they couldn't overcome in losing the game 21-5 and the series 2-1. Bristol outhalf Jack Spoors scored a try in each of the three Tests.

1930 Lions tour to New Zealand

In a striking similarity to the tour of 1910 the touring party that left bore little resemblance to the 28 players who had received letters in April of that year notifying them that they had been provisionally selected. In fact only nine would travel in a touring party that included five Irish players.

Included in that number was the outstanding number eight George Beamish, one of four brothers in the RAF. Charles, also an Irish international, would travel with the 1936 Lions tour to Argentina, Francis was killed in the Battle of Britain and Cecil would go on to become an air vice marshal.

George Beamish, who played in all five Tests, expressed a displeasure at the lack of Irish colours in the Lions kit – the tourists wore a blue jersey with a white collar, white shorts and red socks with a white turnover top – something that was rectified with the green top in time for the 1938 tour.

The Lions won the first Test at Carisbrook, Dunedin, 6-3 – the first time they had beaten New Zealand, who were wearing an all-white strip because of a clash of colours. The tourists were beaten in a classic second Test 13-10 at Christchurch, the pivotal moment a dislocated collarbone suffered by Wanderers and Ireland scrumhalf Paul Murray after half an hour.

The Lions lost the third Test, again narrowly, 15-10, and went into the fourth hoping to level the series but running out of steam they conceded six tries in a 22-8 defeat.

1955 Lions tour to South Africa

Instonians and Ireland secondrow Robin Thompson led the Lions to face the challenge of the Springboks, who had not lost a Test series to any country, home or away, for 59 years.

Clem Thomas, in his excellent book on the British & Irish Lions, and a renowned player on that tour, recalled some of the instructions received prior to departure – one of which forbade the Lions from inviting people into their hotels and “that any sexual contact with people of a different colour would put us in grave danger of imprisonment”.

The Lions party included some of the finest players of their generation: Cliff Morgan, Jeff Butterfield, an 18-year old Tony O'Reilly, Rhys Williams and Dickie Jeeps. They were the first Lions squad to travel by air, The Lockheed Constellation stopping at Zurich, Rome, Cairo, Khartoum, Nairobi and Entebbe before reaching Johannesburg 36 hours later.

The tourists lost their first game of the tour against Western Transvaal but would go on to win 19 and draw one of their next 24 matches. A record 95,000 spectators paid to see the first Test with the Lions selling their surplus tickets to a local barber at £50 each; a small fortune when one considers the tourists got one pound and 10 shillings a week pocket money.

The Lions won 23-22, Irish wings Cecil Pedlow and O'Reilly scoring tries, while playing most of the second half with 14-men due to an injury to Reg Higgins. Jack van der Schyff had a conversion to win the match and his bowed head is immortalised in an iconic photograph.

The Springboks made five changes, scored seven tries and hammered the Lions 25-9 in the second Test but in the third the tourists changed tack and won a kick-fest, that included 63 lineouts, 9-6. The Lions led 5-3 at half-time in the fourth Test but despite a second half try from O’Reilly ran out of steam, losing 22-8. The series though was drawn 2-2.

1971 Lions tour to New Zealand

Coach Carwyn James and captain John Dawes are rightly celebrated for a massive contribution into the only Lions touring party at this point to travel to New Zealand and beat the All Blacks in the Test series.

The players that commandeer the headlines in the folklore of Lions rugby, Gareth Edwards, Barry John, Gareth Davies, JPR Williams, Mervyn Davies, Mike Gibson, Willie John McBride, Ray McLoughlin, Seán Lynch, Fergus Slattery, David Duckham and Ian McLaughlin to highlight a dozen of the party.

It's interesting that the New Zealand captain Colin 'Pinetree' Meads chose Gibson rather than John as the Lions' outstanding player. John was the catalyst for many of his side's finest moments, earning the sobriquet 'King', his ethereal quality summed up brilliantly by Norman Mair, who once wrote: "What a relief it is to see Barry John leaving by the door rather than simply drifting through the wall."

The tour began less than auspiciously when the Lions lost to Queensland but from that moment they won 23, lost one and drew one of their next 25 matches, including claiming the Test series 2-1 with one match drawn.

The Lions won 10 matches in a row leading into the first Test, including the infamous ‘Battle of Canterbury’, and they continued that momentum with a 9-3 victory. The All Blacks responded with a 22-6 in the second Test, ending a run of 15 straight wins for the Lions.

Edwards and John were the stars of a 13-3 Lions win in the third Test and so the series moved to Wellington and the final match but not before McBride captained the Lions for the first time in a midweek game and John Bevan equalled Tony O'Reilly's record of 17 tries (1959) on tour.

The fourth Test saw the sides level 8-8 at the interval, JPR Williams dropped a magnificent long-range goal in the second half but eight minutes from time Laurie Mains, who went on the coach the All Blacks in the 1995 World Cup, kicked a penalty to ensure a 14-14 draw. The Lions won the series 2-1.

1974 Lions tour to South Africa

There is an occasional debate about which was the better side between the 1971 and 1974 Lions squads and the truth is that there’s little to split their achievements other than the latter were to become known as ‘The Invincibles’ because they never lost a match.

What is agreed is that there was never a better Lions pack to take the pitch, while pointing out that the tourists certainly didn’t lack a cutting edge, scoring 107 tries and winning 21 consecutive matches.

Ireland's Willie John McBride, in his fifth tour as a player and manager Syd Millar, in his fourth as player and administrator, proved to be the perfect leadership axis of a lavishly gifted playing group, many of whom had been part of the success four years earlier in New Zealand.

The stories from the tour are legion but what emerges is that this squad were able to play hard and party hard in equal measure and but for a dreadful refereeing decision would have won the Test series 4-0, instead of 3-0 with the final match drawn.

The Lions beat the 'Boks 12-3, 28-9 and 26-9 in the first three Tests and but for a disallowed try by referee Max Baise when Fergus Slattery cleared touched the ball down, would have won the fourth but had to settle for a 14-14 draw.

1977 Lions tour to New Zealand

Phil Bennett would later admit in his autobiography that he was the wrong man to captain a touring party that endured one of the worst New Zealand winters on record and were beset from the start of the tour by adverse reports in the New Zealand media about the behaviour of the tourists off the pitch.

The most amusing undoubtedly was the headline in the Daily News that proclaimed 'They're Lousy Lovers' centred around a claim from a lady called Wanda from Wanganui who suggested she had slept with four of the tourists.

Off pitch issues aside the Lions won all bar one of their non-Test matches and in the series against the All Blacks had an opportunity to level it at 2-2 in the fourth Test. Unlike the tour in 1971 it was the forwards that included Ireland's Willie Duggan as a standout performer that took all the plaudits with the backs lacking in cohesion.

The Lions lost the first Test 16-12, a game that hinged on an intercept by Grant Batty; won the second that was marred by a second half brawl; were beaten 17-9 in Dunedin but going into the final match at Eden Park had a chance to square the series.

The tourists led 9-3 but once again after a brilliant performance from their forwards they contrived to lose with a late try by Lawrie Knight their undoing.

1989 Lions tour to Australia

Scottish flanker Finlay Calder led the Lions with Ian McGeechan taking the coaching reins for the first time having been a celebrated player in South Africa and New Zealand on previous tours.

The current Ireland team manager and former international Paul Dean was invalided out of the tour after the first match in Perth, one of four Irishman alongside Brendan Mullin, Steve Smith and Donal Lenihan; the latter would go on to captain that midweek side that would be affectionately known as 'Donal's Donuts.'

The Lions came from 1-0 down in the Test series – Gatland's men will seek to do the same on Saturday – to win the final two games against the Wallabies, including a real nail-biter 19-18 in the third Test with Gavin Hastings kicking five penalties and Ieuan Evans grabbing his side's only try after an error from David Campese.

1993 Lions tour to New Zealand

Ian McGeechan was back again as coach with Gavin Hastings leading an initial touring party that included just two Irishmen in Nick Popplewell and Mick Galwey, although Richard Wallace and Vince Cunningham would be called out as replacements.

The footnotes of the tour include Wade Dooley returning home for the death of his father and not being allowed to rejoin as a player, the failure of England captain Will Carling to be considered first choice for the Test series and a controversial try that decided the first Test in the All Blacks' favour.

Grant Fox put up a high ball, simultaneously caught by Ieuan Evans and Frank Bunce, who fell to the ground over the Lions' try line, but the referee ruled in favour of the latter and New Zealand won the match 20-18.

The Lions struck back in the second Test, the highlight a brilliant try from Rory Underwood but in what many will hope isn't an omen for Saturday the All Blacks romped home 30-13 to win the series 2-1.

2001 Lions tour to Australia

At the time it was the biggest ever squad to represent the Lions, 37 players – there would be seven replacements to be tagged on too – under the coaching baton of Graham Henry. Martin Johnson, the captain four years previously when the Lions beat the Springboks 2-1 in the Test series, earned a second term while Ireland's Donal Lenihan was manager.

The portents appeared good. There were 16 players from the victorious South African jaunt. The Lions had never lost a Test series in Australia (14 wins from 17 Tests) and a young kid Brian O'Driscoll was about to explode onto the rugby firmament.

The Foot & Mouth crisis had left many of the Lions a little underdone and there was mumblings of discontent expressed by players for a variety of reasons that was best illustrated by an Austin Healy column before the final Test that ridiculed Henry and Aussie lock Justin Harrison. There was also Duncan McRae's assault on O'Gara.

O'Driscoll's wonderful individual try followed on from a similarly superb effort by Jason Robinson as the Lions claimed the first Test and they led 11-6 at half-time in the second before the Wallabies produced a stunning turnaround to prevail 35-14.

The Lions, beset by injuries to key players, lost the deciding Test 29-23, a decisive moment when Harrison nicked a Lions throw metres from his own line. The 1999 world champions had beaten the Lions in a Test series for the first time.

2013 Lions tour to Australia

The Lions hoped to redress disaster of 2005 (NZ, 3-0) and the heartbreak of 2009 (SA, 2-1) when the returned to Australia four years ago and this they accomplished the task with their 12th series victory in 125 years of touring, albeit that there is an asterisk beside that figure given some of the tours that are counted in that figure.

Warren Gatland, as assistant to Ian McGeechan in South Africa (2009) took over the head coach's role, and chose an original squad of 37 players, of whom only 13 had been previous tourists. A 24-year-old Sam Warburton fended off competition from a couple of previous captains in Brian O'Driscoll and Paul O'Connell.

There were injuries and suspensions that ruled players out before the tour and Cian Healy suffered the disappointment of having to return home after damaging an ankle in the game against the Force.

The Lions motored nicely to the first Test, the critical moments of which were George North's try and two late missed penalties by Wallaby pivot Kurtley Beale that saw the tourists scrape home 23-21.

O'Connell had broken his arm and would miss the rest of the tour. The Wallabies squeezed home 16-15 in the second Test, scoring the only try of the game through Adam Ashley Cooper. Leigh Halfpenny, who would go on to be the Lions' player of the series, had a 55-metre penalty, much like Beale in the previous test, to win the match but it dropped short.

Gatland made six changes – one of which was to drop O'Driscoll in preference for Jamie Roberts for the third Test. There were 10 Welshman in the team. It was a brave call and one that was vindicated when the Lions thrashed the Wallabies 41-16.

John O'Sullivan

John O'Sullivan

John O'Sullivan is an Irish Times sports writer