The 1971 tour took in Australia and New Zealand but the only test matches in the latter. This was arguably the best tour ever made by the Lions. Skippered by John Dawes and managed by Doug Smith, but coached by the mercurial Carwyn James. They became the first Lions to win a series in New Zealand in almost three-quarters of a century of trying. The Lions selectors made a bold move in appointing James, who had never been asked to coach his native Wales. But the progressive, innovative thinking that had been ignored at home proved the key to creating one of the great Lions sides.
They actually lost the first of the two warm-up matches they played in Australia but suffered only one further defeat in the entire 26-match tour and won the Test series 2-1, with the final international drawn.
Having won the Grand Slam in 1971, Wales contributed the largest contingent of players, including the likes of Gareth Edwards, Barry John, Gerald Davies, JPR Williams, John Bevan, Mervyn Davies, Derek Quinnell and John Taylor. The standard of players from the three other nations was not bad either, including David Duckham, John Pullin and Peter Dixon of England, Irelands Mike Gibson, Willie John McBride and Fergus Slattery, and Scots Ian McLauchlan and Gordon Brown. For all their talent, one player still stood out. Barry John attained superstar status on the tour with the range of his kicking repertoire and the grace with which he ghosted through the walls of defence ranged against him.
The Lions were under the cosh for long periods of the opening Test but prevailed 9-3 thanks to a McLauchlan try and two penalties from John. They lost the second meeting 22-12 but refused to panic, as they knew they had been way below their best. They proved as much in the third Test, in which they produced an outstanding performance controlled by the regal John, who contributed a try, two conversions and a drop goal to a 13-3 victory, with Davies scoring the visitors’ other try. Tension peaked in the final Test, in which the Lions needed to avoid defeat to win the series. It wasn’t a classic, but the 14-14 draw was all the tourists needed. A Dixon try, two penalties and a conversion from the boot of John, topped by a 45-metre drop goal from JPR proved sufficient for the Lions to make history.