Spencer rekindles Lions spirit of '71

As the Test series against the All Blacks kicks off in Christchurch this morning, John Spencer of Wharfedale, Headingley and England recalls the heady days of 1971 when the British Lions won their first Test series in New Zealand. Bill Bridge reports.

MUCH has changed and some things have stayed the same, in sport and in everyday life, over the past three decades and rugby union has changed as much as any but for John Spencer it remains a passion, just as the Dales remain home.

For Spencer, life is the Dales. He practises as a solicitor in Grassington, where he has lived all his life apart from schooldays at Sedbergh and his years at Cambridge. He knows everyone in the Dale, from waitress to landowner, and they all greet him as he does them, with a smile – and his rugby life is centred on Wharfedale.

His smile changes to a beam as he recalls his days with the Lions of 1971, captained by John Dawes, coached by Carwyn James and including some of the greatest players produced in these islands – Gareth Edwards, Barry John, Willie-John McBride, Mike Gibson, JPR Williams, Mervyn Davies and Peter Dixon to name only a few.

Two tales from Spencer put into perspective the difference between the 1971 Lions and the 2005 variety who open their Test series in Christchurch today.

Barry John was perhaps the key figure in the 1971 side, his kicking from hand tormenting every New Zealand team he faced, his goalkicking taking the art to new heights and his ability to ghost through the smallest of gaps driving the Kiwi back-row forwards to distraction.

So it was on the day of the first Test that the tour party had been bussed to the Carisbrook ground in Dunedin and the team had retired to the dressing room to prepare for the forthcoming challenge.

"Barry was never one for team talks," says Spencer. "He would rather read the paper while others like Willie-John were making holes in the plastered walls with their heads.

"Half an hour before kick-off, Barry opened his bag and found he had packed two left boots. Panic. Carwyn sent for me from the stand – where the non-playing Lions were grouped – and told me to get in a police car, get back to the hotel and retrieve a right boot.

"We went with sirens blaring, driving against the flow of traffic, went to Barry's room, picked up the boot and raced back. We arrived 30 seconds before kick-off."

Imagine Jonny Wilkinson being so laid-back before a Test that he packed the wrong boots? Impossible.

Imagine, too, in these days of 45-player touring parties for tours of half the length they used to be, the scene the previous day, the final work-out before the Dunedin Test. The 1971 party numbered exactly 30 – two teams – and the drill was for the Test pack to work against the other eight forwards in training. But this day Delme Thomas, McBride's partner in the second row, was carrying a slight injury and could not be risked in scrum practice with the Test only 24 hours away.

So James looked round the backs not in the Test XV and decided that Spencer was the man to fill in at second-row. "Willie-John slipped me under his shoulder and we did 40 scrums without a break," recalls Spencer, laughing at the memory.

"I kept going to ground and Willie-John kept picking me up. At every scrum, John Pullin, the hooker, and prop Ian McLauchlan made sure they rubbed my ears with their hips, hoping to give me cauliflower ears. The other prop was Sean Lynch and the back row was Fergus Slattery, Derek Quinnell and Mervyn Davies."

That pack – with Thomas back for Spencer – played in the first Test and the crucial first blow was struck for the Lions with a 9-3 victory.

"Barry John made Fergie McCormick looks a fool at full-back that day with his precise kicking," says Spencer. "And McLauchlan charged down a kick and scored the only try of the game." John added the other points with two penalties (with the right boot).

The Lions were on their way. They were unbeaten in the provinces of New Zealand and everywhere they went played flowing, attractive rugby which even had some Kiwis singing their praises, especially after the brutality of the match against Canterbury the week before the Test when Scottish prop Sandy Carmichael was punched so hard and often that his tour was ended by a broken cheekbone and his Irish colleague Ray McLoughlin broke his thumb in exacting retribution.

For Spencer, the tour was spent in the midweek team, initially on the wing awaiting the arrival of Gerald Davies, who was taking final exams at Cambridge, then alongside either fellow Headingley centre Chris Rea or Arthur Lewis.

In his first six matches, he needed 48 stitches, most of them in his face and most inflicted by Ken Going, brother of Sid, in the Lions' victory over the New Zealand Maoris.

His dreams of a Test place ended when Gibson, initially picked to tour as fly-half for the midweek team, was co-opted on to the selection panel alongside Dawes, himself a Test centre, James and tour manager Doug Smith and made it known he wanted to be considered a centre.

But that did not prevent Spencer – and the others destined not to play in a Test – having a marvellous time and forging lasting friendships.

He remembers the "Sunday School" drinking sessions; the week of gruelling, twice-daily training sessions before the team even left England – even doubting Sir Clive's assertion that his is the fittest tour party ever to leave Britain; and he remembers helping five others tie one inebriated room-mate to his bed to prevent him causing further mayhem, then releasing the miscreant at 6.00am the following morning so he could go to Mass.

The series was won 2-1 with one match drawn – exactly as manager Smith had predicted when the tourists arrived in New Zealand: the aura still lingers.

"We all hug each other when we meet because we won – then we shake hands with a strength which sustains a lifetime's friendship," says Spencer with pride. "When your eyes meet across a room and you nod your head you are sharing the most incredible secret of rugby union.

"To win a series over there is perhaps the hardest thing anyone can do in the game – except perhaps win a World Cup final. But the tour was never about hatred, it was about respect and fierce competition."

Sadly, some of Spencer's touring colleagues – Dawes, John, Thomas, "Stack" Stevens, Chico Hopkins and Carmichael among them – are not in the best of health while Smith, James and the great Gordon Brown have passed on but the spirit of '71 lingers and is illustrated every time Spencer returns to Wales.

"They want my autograph, even so many years later, and they know who I am on the team photos and exactly where they want me to sign," he says.

He did not know it at the time but when Spencer returned to London with the Lions for one last party before the squad broke up he had played his last international rugby match. In the previous 12 months, he had captained England through the RFU's centenary season and he had gone with the Lions.

But he was never again picked for an international and after playing for Headingley and the Barbarians (he was a fixture on the traditional Easter tour of Wales) he returned to his roots with Wharfedale where he soldiered on despite injury problems – he dislocated his shoulder twice in one match against neighbours Keighley – before retiring.

Now he mixes law with the presidency of Wharfedale and important roles on the RFU at Twickenham, being a frequent traveller on the early-morning train from Skipton direct to King's Cross.

The memories help sustain him on the long hours and ambition for Wharfedale drives him on.

"I would love us to earn promotion," he says. "With three down from our division, you always have to be realistic but I really would love our players to have a crack at it."

In the spirit of the 1971 Lions, perhaps.

bill.bridge@ypn.co.uk