#3 ‘Lions Flashback’- 1930-1950 NZ v British Isles Challenges

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Last Word on Rugby, by Scott Hornell.

Getting closer in our countdown to the British and Irish Lions tour of New Zealand, it is only fitting that Last Word On Rugby offer rugby fans a ‘Lions flashback’ or two. Continuing today, follow us as we recall ten of the best clashes from historic tours.

‘Lions Flashback’- New Zealand v British Isles series 1930-1950

#3: From the 1930’s the early era will often have a nostalgic appeal. As one can view from this early footage, the game was still held in an aura of ‘mother nation versus the colony’. While this Lions flashback view of the past seems nostalgic, the reality of visiting British and Irish Lions teams then [and today] meant they faced a very much tougher challenge.

That same tough challenge faces the men in 2017 [encountering NZ Rugby] and this Lions flashback covers the 1930’s to 1950’s era. An insight on the pre-World War era, and below, the post war game.

What is clear, is that it was a very exhausting exercise. Any form of International travel was, so in 1930 it was a ‘trip to the unknown’ and later, the 1950’s tour was a tough exercise. The great endeavors are described in the footage within.

A Tour to Develop Nationhood – 1930

While most will name the 1924 ‘Invincibles’ tour as a standard bearer of the formation of the All Black legend, that was an offshore venture. Incredible as that was, defending your home ground is when the aura of invincibility is born.

That test came with the touring British Isles side, who would begin a schedule of 28 matches. The first official group to endorse the ‘Lions’ moniker begun on tour in South Africa. It saw provincial games played up and down the country. It included some famous losses, but the Lions won the opening test 3-6.

Some of the famous names to grace the series included George Nepia. The 25 year old had made his name away from home, so in 1930 he would be a star. A star who shone intensely for a short period unfortunately, as on August 9, he played his last game for the ‘Men in Black’. His personal choice to make the switch to the more lucrative Rugby League game was one reason, as was injury.

New Zealand rugby player George Nepia (1905 – 1986). (Photo by Topical Press Agency/Getty Images)

The second test feared better for the home side, won 13-10. The third test won, 15-10. That meant the fourth test would decide the series. A great event, however the All Blacks ran away with the game 22-8 [a huge margin for the 1930’s] and they reinforced the reputation as the ‘toughest land to tour’.

1950’s – New Zealand Show Their Rugby Quality

When the invitation was accepted, New Zealand was still a post-War nation. Rationing was in play, the country still in recovery but also prosperous in it’s rich rural sector. The first expedition by the British combined side since the Second World War, the tourists arrived by ship, and tour manager Leslie B. Osborne exclaimed;

“We’re all jolly glad to be here.”

“The 1950 Lions were certainly popular,” Stephen Berg told NZME. Berg is the Director of the New Zealand Rugby Museum, located in Palmerston North. “They brought people to the games, people were excited. When they arrived in town, the train network was the main source of travel, and the trains would stop and there would be 1000 people waiting at the train station to greet them.

“They were also nicknamed the ‘Singing Lions’ because they would sing. They were very happy and having a great time. And the crowds bought into it and they were one of the most popular tour teams that ever came.”

British and Irish Lions Tour Formed Then; and Has Today, a Strong Bond

That conviviality is one factor that is gladly still common with any modern rugby tour. The attitude of tourists in 1950 is similar to the values of the men involved in the current tour. 2017 tour manager; and ex-player John Spencer, demonstrates those same common rugby-values. His attitude, and the conduct of the 41 tourists of 2017 is as respectful as it was back then.

Back in 1950, three wins and a draw were the final outcome of the tour, but only after some close-fought battles. Man-on-man challenges are very much the same as today, yet even with speedsters like Ken Jones (see below) the British Lions were unable to convert all their chances.

(L-R) Bob Evans and Ken Jones, Wales and British Lions (Photo by S&G/PA Images via Getty Images)

Fan gratification is very much different from then, to 2017. Some will argue that watching the game has the same powerful social spirit. If more so in 1930 and 1950. As the test match frequency was much less, the aura was stronger. The word epic is very much a suitable adjective to describe what this Lions flashback meant to the nation.

And to the All Blacks. Not yet a brand, but soon to be a force in World Rugby. In the post-War years, every nation would soon send their side down to New Zealand. In an acknowledgment of the teams growing standard, the visit downunder would revert to being the ‘major tour’ stop.


Follow our ‘Lions flashback’ series, building up towards the opening test of the British and Irish Lions tour, on June 24.