Two Welshmen who masterminded the swashbuckling British and Irish Lions series win nearly half a century ago inadvertently set the All Blacks’ platform for Rugby World Cup glory. Lydia Monin travels to the coal-mining village where it all began to turn this sporting theatre of 1971 into a film.
In the rugby club, they open a glass case that displays an array of faded neckties – the scalps taken by two local boys on a marauding tour of New Zealand nearly half a century ago. I’m in Cefneithin to make a film about the two central characters in a sporting drama, and at the merest hint of a Kiwi accent, I’m informed, in Churchillian tones, that never in the field of athletic endeavour was so much owed by so many to so few. Cefneithin is the birthplace of Carwyn James and Barry John, Lions coach and tormentor-in-chief of the All Blacks, respectively.
Only one British and Irish Lions team, the 1971 vintage, have won a series against the All Blacks. But what has secured their place in history is not just that they won; it was how they won and the legacy they created. Every time a new harvest of the home nations’ finest is dispatched to New Zealand, the class of ’71 becomes ever more revered, ever more mythical.
“Never a moment's doubt”
The next scenes of the film are shot in the ornate edifice of Cardiff City Hall, a shrine to the days when coal made this city prosperous. One by one, the great names of Welsh rugby gather to tell me how they beat the All Blacks. Gareth, Gerald, Barry, JPR; surnames are not required for these men, not in this part of the world. And as soon as we start to talk about that tour, each and every one of them, whatever the question, mentions Carwyn, again surname not required.
“Carwyn never had a moment’s doubt that we would win in New Zealand,” says Sir Gareth Edwards, the first of two knights in this tale. “The first time we all gathered together, he very quietly and very calmly told the squad that we would win the series. He had such charisma that everyone instantly bought into this. If Carwyn says it’s so, then it’s so.”
Before the tour, Carwyn’s coaching experience was limited to a long-running tenure at the private school where he taught and an innovative stint with home-town club Llanelli. But every three or four years, the great and the good of the four “home” rugby unions met to bestow on somebody the dubious honour of coaching the British and Irish Lions on their next overseas adventure. By 1970, what had started as a rugby missionary expedition to take the game to the colonies had evolved into an almost monotonous series of defeats – especially in New Zealand. A notice was placed in the newspapers advertising the role – and it was read with great interest by a schoolteacher in South Wales.
Carwyn was a candidate for two jobs in the spring of 1970. As well as the Lions coaching post, he was also standing for Parliament in the general election of that year. In the staunchly Labour heartland of Llanelli, the town’s rugby coach was a candidate for the Welsh nationalist party, Plaid Cymru, for a seat in which they stood about as much chance of winning as the British Lions did of beating the All Blacks. He got the expected drubbing at the ballot box, but the arch-nationalist was entrusted with unifying a British Isles and Ireland squad on an equally unlikely campaign trail.
The English rugby Establishment scribes saw a Welsh republican about to coach a Lions party dominated by his notoriously poor-travelling countrymen – Wales’s record on rugby tours to distant shores was woeful – for the ritual slaughter in New Zealand. At least they would be able to blame this one on the Welsh.
What followed in the winter of 1971 shattered the aura of invincibility that New Zealand had built over decades. The Lions played with flair and imagination and made the All Blacks look rigid, unsmiling and behind the times. In just over three and a half months of touring, it became clear that the game of rugby had moved on. The coach built a team in his own image and turned the test series into a “beauty-and-the-beast affair” – the free-flowing, dare one say it, romantic Lions side, against the brutal but ruthlessly efficient All Blacks.
Carwyn was a multilinguist, poet, bon viveur and aesthete, as likely to advise his charges on the theatre and the opera as on defensive lines or ball retention. But if the master plan for beating the All Blacks had been conceived in a mining village in West Wales, its successful execution required a little divine intervention.
Running rugby is a fair-weather enterprise, requiring a dry ball and a hard pitch. These are rare in a typical New Zealand winter, but the winter of 1971 was far from typical. The Lions barely saw a drop of rain until they reached Hawke’s Bay – 17 matches into the 24-game tour – and after that deluge, it was blue skies all the way.
JPR Williams says that on the way to Eden Park for the decisive fourth and final test, he could feel the homesickness and tension in the bus, so he stood up and announced, “Okay boys, today I’m going to drop a goal.” The fullback, not known for his ability to drop goals, got the desired laugh.
A few hours later, JPR took a pass not far from the halfway line and launched a drop-kick straight through the uprights that essentially clinched a draw in the test and victory in the series by two matches to one. He looks into our camera and delivers a frame-perfect re-enactment of that moment at Eden Park when he turned his head to the reserves in the stand, arm punching the air, and screamed, “I told you so!” He tells the story with glee, as if he never tires of reliving the moment.
“After the final test, I was in the dressing room, sat next to Gerald Davies, and I turned to him,” Sir Gareth tells me, hunching forward and glancing over, as if he were back there in 1971, “and I said, ‘Ger, we’ve beaten the All Blacks … and Gerald turned to me and he said, ‘Yes’, and we both virtually said at the same time, ‘So what?’” The campaign had been so demanding, the victory so significant, that Sir Gareth felt empty.
Year to recover
The magnitude of what they’d achieved began to sink in when he arrived back in Britain, but it took a whole year to recover psychologically and physically.
After the tour, the Lions contributed chapters to a book about how they beat the All Blacks. It became something of a bible for a young New Zealand teacher. “Thank you, Carwyn,” says Sir Graham Henry, contributing to the documentary via an interview recorded in his Auckland apartment. Sir Graham still has his dog-eared copy of the book and says the lessons learnt from Carwyn James and his team resulted in the biggest wake-up call in New Zealand rugby history and laid the foundation for New Zealand’s 1987 World Cup success.
Call never came
Welsh rugby also benefited from the ’71 campaign. The Welsh players who had embarked on the tour, especially Gareth Edwards, Gerald Davies and JPR Williams, were on the cusp of taking Wales into an unprecedented era of Northern Hemisphere dominance. But they would do so without the two men who had, in many ways, led them to the promised land. For the two central characters, Carwyn James and Barry John, the great sporting drama of 1971 would leave an indelible mark.
Within a year of coming home as rugby’s first real superstar, Barry John walked away from the game at the age of 27, struggling to deal with the weight of fame. Carwyn James paid an even greater price. He returned from New Zealand, lauded as a rugby visionary, the man who masterminded the downfall of the All Blacks. It seemed inevitable that having scaled such heights, this passionate Welshman would eventually lead his beloved Wales and the glittering array of talent in the country to further success. But the call never came.
Despite beating the All Blacks twice more, in charge of Llanelli and then the Barbarians, he remained something of an outsider in Welsh rugby and was never offered the position of national coach. Disillusioned, he took a coaching job in Italy and then drifted away from the game, before dying in a lonely hotel room in Amsterdam at the age of 53. Carwyn was destined to be the rugby prophet not recognised in his own land.
Lions in New Zealand
Saturday, June 3
v NZ Provincial Barbarians, Whangarei, 7.35pm
Wednesday, June 7
v Blues, Auckland, 7.35pm
Saturday, June 10
v Crusaders, Christchurch, 7.35pm
Tuesday, June 13
v Highlanders, Dunedin, 7.35pm
Saturday, June 17
v Maori All Blacks, Rotorua, 7.35pm
Tuesday, June 20
v Chiefs, Hamilton, 7.35pm
Saturday, June 24
FIRST TEST: v All Blacks, Auckland, 7.35pm
Tuesday, June 27
v Hurricanes, Wellington, 7.35pm
Saturday, July 1
SECOND TEST: v All Blacks, Wellington, 7.35pm
Saturday, July 8
THIRD TEST: v All Blacks, Auckland, 7.35pm
This article was first published in the June 3, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.