Former EP coach Grizz Wylie recalls the day his face broke a Lions’ player’s thumb
Blood will be spilt and tempers may flare when the British and Irish Lions clash with the world champion All Blacks, but stricter referees and modern technology should prevent a repeat of the thuggish incidents that have blighted past series.
That is at least the opinion of Alex “Grizz” Wyllie, the former All Blacks enforcer and ex-Eastern Province coach who was in the thick of it during the 1971 tour, when the Lions prevailed 2-1 over Colin Meads’s side in a hard-fought and spiteful series.
Wyllie holds the distinction of sending one of the 1971 tourists home, simply by getting his face in the way of a clenched fist during the infamous Canterbury v Lions tour match in Christchurch.
The stalwart loose forward had a cut cheek after wearing a punch from Ray McLoughlin in the “Battle of Lancaster Park” but it was the Irish prop who came off second best with a broken thumb ending his tour.
The Lions won the match 14-3 a week before the opening test in Dunedin but also lost another prop in Sandy Carmichael for the series due to a cracked cheekbone.
Much has been written of Canterbury’s role in a clash described as the “dirtiest” played by Lions lock Delme Thomas, and Wyllie freely admitted his team mates were deliberate in their plans to go in hard.
But the gruff 72-year-old said most of the beating up was committed off the field by Scottish tour manager Doug Smith, whom he portrayed as a master of media management.
“A fair bit was made out of it,” Wyllie said from his farm outside Christchurch. “I mean, Doug Smith, their manager, he sorted out their media and our media with what happened.
“I knew some of the reporters were going to say, ‘typically hard-fought New Zealand game’ and Doug Smith got hold of them and said, ‘This is too much. This isn’t rugby.’ “And it actually blew it up probably a damn sight more than it really was.”
The Lions’ front row had, in any case, set the tone by boring in at scrum-time in the previous tour match, said Wyllie, prompting his Canterbury team mates to resolve to stamp it out in Christchurch.
Welsh scrumhalf Gareth Edwards remembers being “nearly decapitated” by Wyllie but the New Zealander claims he was a non-combatant when McLoughlin swung the haymaker that broke his thumb.
“When I tell people I was actually trying to stop something, they say, ‘Yeah, you’re joking,’” he laughed.
“I’ve caught up with Ray again in Ireland and we’ve had a bit of a laugh about it.”
The Lions went on to claim the four-test series with a tense 14-14 draw in the final match at Eden Park, and Wyllie, who was the All Blacks’ number eight in three of the four games, agreed that the Canterbury firestorm may have galvanised the tourists.
It went the other way for the 2005 tour, however, when Lions captain Brian O’Driscoll was upended by All Blacks captain Tana Umaga and hooker Keven Mealamu in the opening minute of the first test, also at Lancaster Park.
That put the Irish centre out of the series with a serious shoulder injur y.
All Blacks players have said the media condemnation that rained down on them after the win fired them up to complete a 3-0 series sweep over Clive Woodward’s tourists. Twelve years on, bad blood still lingers from the tackle and Wyllie was not rushing to Umaga and Mealamu’s defence.
“The O’Driscoll [incident] was not good,” Wyllie said gravely.
“Today is totally different, though.
“You don’t get out on the field to fight. You go out there to play rugby. And you can’t get away with it today anyhow, with your touch judges, your cameras and third referee.
“If they had them back in those days, a lot of these things would never have happened.”
The Lions’ 1971 series win, their sole triumph in New Zealand, was a bitter pill to swallow for Meads’s All Blacks but Wyllie enjoyed a measure of revenge 12 years later as coach of an outstanding Canterbury side that upset the tourists 22-20 at Lancaster Park.
Wyllie said the Lions, who also play New Zealand’s other four Super Rugby teams, would be competitive but faced no easy matches against opponents who would be more than happy to soften them up for the three-match test series. – Reuters