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Peter Bills' World Cup Blog: The lunatic japes of previous Lions tours

Ireland’s arrival in New Zealand for the start of this Rugby World Cup - they play the USA in New Plymouth on Sunday - reminded me of the story of two great Irish rugby men way back in the 1960s in this country.

Ray McLoughlin and Willie John McBride were both equally distraught at the shambles and early disintegration of the 1966 Lions tour. Of course in those days, the most important thing for Lions selectors was to wear the right tie for dinner and consume vast vats full of port without making a fool of oneself.

Choosing the right players and particularly the right captain for a Lions tour came some way down their list of priorities.

Thus, one Michael Campbell-Lamerton was chosen as the 1966 Lions captain. Not because he was the best player in his position in the four home unions - he was a million miles from that - but chiefly because he was an army man, an officer and a good chap. He would command the respect of the players and handle the locals in exemplary fashion.

They have manners and discipline, these Army chappies, so the theory went. And those things mattered in those days.

Thus, those Lions set off on what we could call a wing and a prayer. It quickly became apparent that not only were they not good enough, they weren’t tough enough.

In the eyes of hard men like Ray McLoughlin and Willie John McBride, this was a crime amounting to a hanging offence. Yet they could do precious little about it.

So the disappointing, protracted tour dragged on. The weather wasn’t great and when they arrived in Queenstown, or near there anyway in that part of the south island, it snowed hard.

The Lions management decided drastic action, true innovation was required with a Test just days away. The Test team would go on alone to Dunedin, while the injured (among them McBride) or other squad members, would stay near Queenstown.

Trouble was, even in Dunedin, it was cold, icy and snowy in most places around the town. A notable exception was the local airport and the Lions decided to use it for training. McBride, sitting up in Queenstown, was intrigued to know how his fellow Irishman had been getting on down in Dunedin. So he called him up.

‘How’s yer tour goin’ down there’ he enquired.

‘Sure, it’s grand enough’ was McLoughlin’s response. ‘We trained at the airport today, very nice. Only trouble was, when a plane was coming in to land, we had to run for cover.’

Trust me. On such lunatic japes were Lions tours founded in those days.

In 1968, the Lions went to South Africa and another Irishman, scrum half Roger Young, was so captivated by the place (and the locals) that he decided to settle out there. He’s been there ever since.

It was only in 1971 when that brilliant Welshman (brilliant in plenty of other ways than just rugby football) Carwyn James went to New Zealand as Lions coach that things changed. Then, the Lions won the series in this country. It remains their only success on a tour to New Zealand.

Somehow, I doubt the Irish boys have been worried about low flying aircraft this week in training. So no excuses, whatever the outcome of Sunday’s game.

Belfast Telegraph


From Belfast Telegraph