For parochial supporters, there is no such thing as a famous defeat.
But down the years, there have been some heavy losses that will forever be remembered or serve as a catalyst for change. For Wellington, three that stand out seven decades apart are the province’s 48-8 loss to Hawke’s Bay in 1926, the 17-66 defeat to Canterbury in 1995 (both Ranfurly Shield challenges), and the 9-47 slaying at the hands of the touring British & Irish Lions side in 1971.
This week marks the 50th anniversary of that loss to the Lions. Below is a re-publish (from 2015) of an article we published about that match, and some commentary and words at the time by then Wellington captain Andy Leslie about how defeat was turned into a positive future outcome.
Result: British Isles 47 – Wellington 9
When: 5 June 1971
Weather: Cool, under grey skies
The 1971 British Isles side was one of the strongest international touring sides to tour New Zealand. The squad, featuring 13 Triple Crown winning Welshmen and four survivors from the 1966 Lions team to New Zealand, including Irish duo Willie John McBride and Mike Gibson, and other legendary players such as Gareth Edwards, Barry John and JPR Williams, were expected to test the All Blacks.
After playing two matches in Australia against Queensland and New South Wales, the Lions hit New Zealand shores in Mid-May for a 24-match tour. During its course, the Lions were to play all the big provincial unions, plus matches against the New Zealand Maori and Universities sides and four Tests against the All Blacks.
As well as beating Wellington, some notable provincial results were wins over Waikato (35-14), New Zealand Maori (23-12), Otago (21-9), Canterbury (14-3), Southland (25-3), Taranaki (14-9), Hawke’s Bay (25-6), Auckland (19-12), Manawatu-Horowhenua (39-6), North Auckland (11-5)and Bay of Plenty (20-14).
Against the All Blacks the Lions won in Dunedin (9-3), lost in Christchurch (12-22), won in Wellington (13-3) and drew in Auckland (14-14) – to win the Test series 2-1.
Their overall record was: played 24, won 22, drew 1 and lost 1. They scored 555 points and conceded 204.
The match against Wellington was the fifth of the tour and was four days after their tough win over New Zealand Maori in Auckland.
Lions fever was growing in Wellington, ahead of this match against Wellington, the first of three for the tourists on Athletic Park. They were to win all three, going on to beat the Colin Meads-captained All Blacks and also teaching the NZ Universities side a lesson, 27-6.
What transpired was Wellington’s worst ever defeat against an international touring team – a nine tries to nil rout.
Wellington was captained by former All Blacks flanker Graham Williams, while future All Blacks captain Andy Leslie was at No. 8. Other current or future All Blacks lining up for Wellington included halfback Ian Stevens, first five-eighth John Dougan and teenaged centre Grant Batty.
A cool, grey dawned on match-day but Athletic Park was buzzing.
After an early feeling out process, the Lions opened the scoring. Wing John Bevan scored the first of his four tries in the 8th minute off a tighthead scrum. Wellington midfielder Richard Cleland charged down a kick and Onslow fullback Gregg kicked a penalty to make it 5-3 to the British Isles after about 20 minutes.
From that point on it was one-way traffic. The Lions ran in three further tries to take an 18-3 into halftime.
Wellington first five-eighth John Dougan kicked a dropped goal early in the second half, before the Lions piled on more points and Bevan scored his fourth try midway through the half. The Lions sealed their win with a pair of tries just before fulltime to Mike Gibson.
Afterwards, the Rugby Weekly reviewed the match:
“Nobody likes seeing his home side so comprehensively out-witted as Wellington was.
“But no more could anyone derive anything less than delight at the sort of rugby this magnificent Lions team was able to produce.
“The possession the Lions had was always clean and usable, and with a halfback-first-five combination as harmonious as that of Gareth Edwards and Barry John the Lions were never caught behind the advantage line.
“Edwards, without ever taking on too much, had a strong influence on the game…but of all the Lions backs the most outstanding was Mike Gibson.”
It got worse for Wellington two days later, losing 8-14 to Manawatu in their annual Queen’s Birthday weekend and Coronation Cup fixture.
Later in the season, Wellington picked itself up to beat Otago, Southland, Taranaki and Auckland (all at home) and Hawke’s Bay and Canterbury (both away).
Another positive post-script was that the Wellington team and individuals within it heeded the Lions’ style of play, adopting a running, fifteen-man rugby philosophy. The great Petone club teams of the early 1970s played this way.
In an interview to Club Rugby contributor Adam Julian early this year [2015 interview], Andy Leslie had this to say about the match and the aftermath:
“We got beaten 47-9, but the Lions were unbelievable. I remember tackling Mike Gibson in one corner and John Bevan had scored in the other. Before the game I told our winger Billy Koopu that Bevan was the only runner. Bevan scored four tries that day.”
“At both Petone and Wellington we started to approach the game more like the Lions. We moved the ball more and that created more enjoyment and success.”
Wellington: 1. T.K. McDonald, 2. P.S. Barrett, 3. G.A. Head, 4.J.H.W. Kirkby, 5. D.M. Waller, 6. A.E. Keown, 7. G.C. Williams, 8. A.R. Leslie, 9. I.N. Stevens, 10. J.P. Dougan, 11.M.L Cull, 12. R.S. Cleland, 13. G.B. Batty, 14. B.M. Koopu, 15. S.J. Gregg
British Isles: 1. R.J McLoughlin, 2. J.V. Pullin, 3, A.B. Carmichael, 4. J.F. Slattery, 5. W.D. Thomas, 6. W.J. McBride, 7. J. Taylor, 8. T.M. Davies, 9. G.O. Edwards, 10. B. John, 11. D.J. Duckham, 12. C.M.H. Gibson, 13. S.J. Dawes, 14. J.C. Bevan, 15. J.P.R. Williams
This result helped influence the Petone style of play, including five of its players, halfback Ian Stevens, second five-eighth Richard Cleland, No. 8 Andy Leslie, tighthead prop Gareth Head and first five-eighth John Dougan.
Ian Stevens made his Wellington debut straight out of school in 1967 and went on to play 112 matches for the province. He remains Wellington’s second most capped back after Bernie Fraser. Stevens played in Wellington’s 12-12 Ranfurly Shield draw with Hawke’s Bay in 1967, received an All Black trial that year and made the NZ U23 side in 1968.
Stevens also played a lot of his rugby at first five-eighth, making the 1972 All Blacks as a flyhalf and eventually playing 13 of his 33 All Blacks games there. He played three Tests and captained the All Blacks in one match.
Richard Cleland never played for the All Blacks, but he played over 100 matches for Wellington throughout the 1970s and later featured in Wellington’s next match against the British Isles in 1977 (a 6-13 loss). Cleland was a goal-kicking midfielder and regularly topped Wellington’s club rugby points scoring charts.
Andy Leslie had played 99 consecutive matches for Wellington since 1968 when in April 1974 he was named in the All Blacks for the first time and also handed the captaincy reins, aged 29. Leslie took over the All Blacks captaincy from Ian Kirkpatrick who remained in the team as a player, and together the pair proved an effective 6-8 combination between 1974-1976. In that time Leslie played 34 matches for the All Blacks including 10 Tests.
Like his contemporary and captain in this match in 1971 Graham Williams, Leslie played an astounding amount of games for Wellington, 144 in all, third most ever behind Williams and Al Keown (149, who also played in this match in 1971). Leslie’s parents were Scottish and his sons Martin (also a Wellington flanker, 75 caps) and John both later played international rugby for the kilted country. Andy Leslie was WRFU President in 2002 and later NZRU President.
Gareth Head played his early rugby for Onslow before moving to Petone in 1966 and playing in well over 100 Senior games many of these in the front row with Petone’s All Black Great Ken Gray. He also played over 100 games for Wellington. When he finished playing he coached the Petone senior 3rds in 1978-79, before being the inaugural Western Suburbs team in 1983. Two seasons later he teamed up with Andy Leslie to coach the Petone Premiers and the Wellington representative Colts team. He helped establish the Ken Gray Academy at Petone, but passed away age 54 in 1997.
- The Dominion newspaper, June 4,5,7 1971
- Arthur Swan and Gordon Jackson. Wellington’s Rugby History Part 11 1950-1979. WRFU, 1979.
- The Visitors – The History of International Rugby Teams in New Zealand by Rod Chester, Neville McMillan. MOA Publications, Auckland, 1990
- The Encyclopedia of New Zealand Rugby By Ron Palenski, Rod Chester, Neville McMillan. Hodder Moa Beckett, Auckland 1998
- All Blacks A-Z on www.allblacks.com
- Adam Julian ‘A beer with an All Black: Andy Leslie’, March 2015
- www.petonerugby.com website
- Rugby Weekly, editions June 5 1971 and June 12 1971