In the countdown to the first Lions Test at Eden Park on June 24, former All Blacks captain Tane Norton remembers the wake-up call the 1971 tourists brought with them to these shores – and how it made New Zealand coaches change their ways. Lynn McConnell reports.
HE MADE his All Blacks debut in the cauldron of the first Test against the British and Irish Lions in 1971, and then led his country when the tourists returned in 1977. Few men know more about what awaits Steve Hansen’s men than Tane Norton.
The rugged Canterbury hooker, now 75, admits the Lions’ powerful pack caught the All Blacks by surprise in 1971 – and he was caught right in the middle of it.
"We were taken a bit unawares of just how good they were at scrummaging,” he told Rugby News.
"In 1971, we weren't so focused on pushing people back. We could put a scrum down all right, but the way they were doing it, they were as tight as hell. You couldn't move them and it was hard work.
"But over the next three or four years, JJ Stewart and the other coaches put a hell of a lot of time into scrummaging, all over the country really, and we gradually improved and managed to hold our own.
“The 1977 side were a good side – still a hell of a good forward pack - but we were a better match for them up front.”
By 1977 the Lions had extended their record with a series win in South Africa and what they learnt in the republic was seen in New Zealand.
"When they played the South Africans they had to be good, and they carried that on," Norton adds.
But for various reasons, including a miserable New Zealand winter of rain and mud, the Lions did not dominate as they had in 1971 and 1974. Part of that was put down to the captaincy choice of brilliant Wales first five-eighth Phil Bennett.
He didn't handle the job well, although as a new captain at Test level himself, Norton said it was usually an advantage to be a new captain when taking a team on tour, rather than having every move analysed by home fans.
"When they make a new captain, he really should have taken the team away somewhere. But the pressure in New Zealand - it's good, that's what New Zealand is all about – is hard. If you go overseas that's all you're doing, you're by yourself and I think you learn a lot from that.
"When you think about the tours that have come back from South Africa [as the All Blacks had in both 1970 and 1976] a lot of the top players, and captains, retire and it is pretty hard work replacing them.
"I found it hard [in 1977]. People in New Zealand are real good to you and they support you all the way, but if you're not going too good they also tell you about it which is fair enough."
Norton's lasting memory of the 1971 series was typified by events in the third Test in Wellington, which the Lions won 13-3.
"A dog ran on the field and tripped one of our guys up and that was about the story of the Test - it was just bad luck."
The All Blacks were hit by injuries and Brian Lochore was called out of retirement to play at lock when Peter Whiting couldn't play.
Norton adds: "They were lucky they could call BJ in but on the eve of the Test he had to come down from up on the farm and it must have been hard for him. I don't know how he did it.
“You couldn't get anybody better to come in, but to come in, in those circumstances, must have been blooming hard for him.”
The 1977 series went down to the wire.
I would say it was inches close in 1977 at Eden Park. [Irish No 8] Willie Duggan just dived at the line and you might say he was over. But he wasn't, he was just a tad short. They were a good side, and good to play.
"It was a pretty tough Test, the pressure that was going on us. We lost a prop, and we had two or three three-man scrums. I don't know why we did, we didn't practice it but we did talk about it for when we got into strife.
"In those days John McEldowney went off and you couldn't bring a prop on immediately. We had to wait, but there were two or three scrums while we waited. They were going to put Laurie Knight in there but there was no way I would put Laurie Knight against Fran Cotton. I don't think it would have done us any good at all. The suggestion came out, to just do something quick, and we did it. We won our own three scrums.
"You get some stick for doing it, mainly from older player - they weren't very happy about it," he added.
So who wins in 2017?
"Steve Hansen is pretty smart, he will know what they have got. If they play up to scratch, they will be a hard team to beat. This will be one of our big tests for a long time.
“Sometimes we've had a weak Lions trip, but I think those days are gone. Warren Gatland knows both sides of it and he will have them tuned up pretty well.
“It is a tough tour for them.”
Read why former All Blacks coach Laurie Mains rates Ben Smith the best fullback on the planet. Inside your June Rugby News at good newsagents now.