06 September 2021
From an age when sporting tours were more akin to odysseys, the Kiwis’ 1971 trek to Britain and France was and always will be among the most remarkable in New Zealand sporting history.
Across 86 days the New Zealanders crammed in 26 matches – six of them Tests – and achieved the singular feat of winning the series against Great Britain 2-0 and backed it up with a 2-0 result in France.
In doing so the Lory Blanchard-coached, Roy Christian-led Kiwis completed an unprecedented sweep which had started with a stunning four-tries-to-one 24-3 upset of the world champion Kangaroos at Carlaw Park in late June.
While the All Golds had beaten the Northern Union 2-1 on their trailblazing 1906-08 tour, the 1971 Kiwis were the first official New Zealand team to win a series in the United Kingdom.
It all comes back into focus now in recalling this tour of all tours kicking off 50 years to the day – September 4, 1971 – in the Lancashire town of Rochdale at the foothills of the South Pennines.
The very mention of the tour is at once evocative, memories flooding back of all manner of deeds and details.
Among them is the vivid recollection as a 16-year-old schoolboy waking up in the early hours to listen to the excitable Murray King’s commentary on a trusty transistor under the pillow (no live television then, of course). And quite some time later there were BBC television replays aided – and perhaps abetted – by unique commentator Eddie Waring’s Yorkshire brogue.
However, marking the 50th anniversary of this story of such spectacular triumph against all odds is also clouded in so much sadness, for now but 13 of the 26 players who toured are still alive; only recently two more of this special crew passed away, standoff-halfback Gary Woollard last month and fellow halfback Shane Dowsett in June.
The first to pass away was goal-kicking front rower Henry Tatana (1998) followed by hooker Bill Burgoyne (1999), prop Doug Gailey (2007), winger Bob McGuinn (2012), loose forward Tony Kriletich (2016), winger Phil Orchard (2018), centre John O’Sullivan (2018), second rower Bill Deacon (2019), fullback Mike McClennan (2019), prop Robert Orchard (2020) and fullback John Whittaker (2020). Blanchard passed away in 2013.
If the win over Australia offered hope heading into the tour it was seemingly eroded by the Kiwis’ form in the opening matches.
In an era when the four-tackle rule was in force – and hometown referees were the norm – the Kiwis beat the Rochdale Hornets 23-8 to open their account but faced a frantic schedule with six matches in the space of 14 days leading into the first Test at The Willows in Salford; their only other win was over Widnes while losses to St Helens, Hull Kingston Rovers, Castleford and Warrington suggested the first Test would be beyond them.
And when coach Blanchard revealed his side for the opening Test there was more than a degree of incredulity with his choice of John Whittaker at fullback. He hadn’t played there in the lead-up matches but Blanchard had three exceptional wingers in Phil Orchard, Mocky Brereton and Whittaker and felt they all needed to play. What a masterstroke it would prove to be turning Whittaker into a fullback.
Another standout feature of the first Test side was the inclusion of the gifted Dennis Williams at standoff. Turning 18 just the day before his international debut, he was outstanding leaving his mark with a sizzling stepping run on his way to a brilliant first half try.
Despite that, the Kiwis were 12-13 down at halftime but had a 15-13 lead through the powerful Phil Orchard early in the second half. Nervously they clung to the advantage until another Orchard try – this time the equally potent Robert – powered over close to the posts. Tatana failed to convert from the handy angle but the Kiwis negotiated the final hectic minutes to secure a stunning 18-13 win.
WATCH FIRST TEST v GREAT BRITAIN
In their next four matches they beat Barrow, Whitehaven and Wigan while dropping a midweek clash against Swinton.
Great Britain made numerous changes for the second Test at Wheldon Road in Castleford – including recalling feisty halfback Alex Murphy – in a desperate effort to level the series. Also selected was former Welsh rugby union star David Watkins making his Great Britain Test debut.
The changes were working well when the home side led 8-0 and then ominously extended to 11-0 after Roger Millward ducked under high tackles and scooted to score wide out.
The Kiwis struck back with a sensational near length-of-the-field try sparked by a wonderful Dennis Williams break; he linked with speedster Phil Orchard on halfway, the winger burning off the cover for his first try of the contest. A Tatana penalty soon after left the Kiwis 5-11 behind at halftime.
Soon after the break they were in again, Phil Orchard stretching the defence with an electric carry. On the next tackle halfback Ken Stirling was at dummy half for a rehearsed play working a slick scissors move which had all the forwards in motion. Second rower John Greengrass crossed to the right, prop Doug Gailey headed wide to the left and the others moved up the middle, Stirling picking up a steaming Tatana who charged over to score.
At 10-11 the Kiwis were right back in it and soon after came one of two heroic defensive plays which would prove critical to the result.
WATCH SECOND TEST v GREAT BRITAIN
This one unfolded as winger Joe Walsh cut through and was in the process of putting the ball down only for a desperate Stirling to jolt the ball loose in a last-ditch try-saving tackle.
Not long after a shocking late and high shot from Murphy flattened the courageous Stirling, an act which was ignored by match officials but ended the Kiwi halfback’s involvement in the match.
A Tatana penalty edged the Kiwis ahead 12-11, Watkins missed a long-range penalty but then winger Clive Sullivan had Great Britain ahead 14-12.
There it stayed until the Kiwis attacked from depth again, shifting the ball across field to the right where centre Roy Christian released the destructive Orchard some 60 metres from the line. Orchard’s combination of speed, strength and balance was breathtaking as he diced with the touchline, stumbled after bumping off fullback Derek Edwards but then scrambled over for a try of exceptional quality and one of major moment.
Tatana converted splendidly from wide out to put the Kiwis 17-14 ahead facing a frenetic final stanza if they were to take out the match and clinch the series.
And now came the most astonishing and vital defensive act of the game. Great Britain attacked relentlessly, the Kiwis repelled them but then Mike Stephenson created space on the left edge for replacement winger Billy Benyon. He was airborne and set to score when out of nowhere loose forward Tony Kriletich launched to knock the ball out of Benyon’s grasp. Not just a match winner but a series clincher. History.
After such a climax the Kiwis lapsed with three straight losses, won three and then lost again in a scarcely believable schedule of seven matches in 14 days ahead of the third Test.
The New Zealanders couldn’t complete a clean sweep going down 3-12 to the Brits in Leeds before blitzing France 27-11 and 24-2 in the first two Tests (Orchard with five tries in total) and winding up the tour with a 3-3 draw in the third Test.
Among a long list of outstanding performers Phil Orchard was an absolute standout. He missed just seven matches on tour, scoring 27 tries in his 19 appearances including eight in five Tests.
Holding it all together was a wonderful leader in Roy Christian, a man held in such high esteem. History sadly shows no New Zealand rugby league player has ever been knighted; Christian would be highly deserving and, had he played another code, he surely would have been recognised years ago.
Barring continued Covid-19 lockdown restrictions, Christian and a group of the surviving members of the famed 1971 Kiwis will be saluted at the ex-Kiwis’ annual reunion traditionally held in October.
Theirs will always be a story and time in New Zealand sporting history to cherish.
1971 KIWIS TO BRITAIN AND FRANCE | SQUAD
Fullbacks | John Whittaker (Wellington), Mike McClennan (Auckland)
Wingers | Phil Orchard (Bay of Plenty), Mocky Brereton (Canterbury), Bob McGuinn (Auckland)
Centres | Roy Christian (Auckland) captain, Bernie Lowther (Auckland), John O’Sullivan (Auckland), Dave Sorensen (Auckland)
Halves | Dennis Williams (Auckland), Gary Woollard (Auckland), Ken Stirling (Auckland), Graeme Cooksley (Canterbury), Shane Dowsett (Auckland)
Hookers | Jim Fisher (Canterbury), Bill Burgoyne (Auckland)
Props | Henry Tatana (Auckland), Doug Gailey (Auckland), Robert Orchard (Auckland), Don Mann (Auckland)
Second rowers | John Greengrass (Canterbury), Gary Smith (Wellington), Bill Deacon (Waikato), Ray Williams (Auckland)
Loose forwards | Tony Kriletich (Auckland), Murray Eade (Auckland)
1971 KIWIS TO BRITAIN AND FRANCE | RESULTS
September 4 v Rochdale Hornets, Athletic Grounds, Rochdale WON 23-8
September 6 v St Helens, Knowsley Road, St Helens LOST 8-18
September 8 v Hull Kingston Rovers, Craven Park, Hull LOST 10-12
September 12 v Widnes, Naughton Park, Widnes WON 18-15
September 15 v Castleford, Wheldon Road, Castleford LOST 8-25
September 18 v Warrington, Wilderspool, Warrington LOST 2-13
September 25 v Great Britain, The Willows, Salford WON 18-13
September 30 v Barrow, Craven Park, Barrow-in-Furness WON 25-15
October 2 v Whitehaven, Recreation Ground, Whitehaven WON 21-8
October 8 v Swinton, Station Road, Manchester LOST 15-26
October 10 v Wigan, Central Park, Wigan WON 24-10
October 16 v Great Britain, Wheldon Road, Castleford WON 17-14
October 17 v Huddersfield, Fartown, Huddersfield LOST 10-11
October 20 v Leigh, Hilton Park, Leigh LOST 5-10
October 22 v Salford, The Willows, Salford LOST 30-31
October 24 v Wakefield Trinity, Belle Vue, Wakefield WON 23-12
October 27 v Oldham, The Watersheddings, Oldham WON 24-13
October 30 v Bradford Northern, Odsal, Bradford WON 30-23
October 31 v York, Clarence Street, York LOST 5-11
November 6 v Great Britain, Headingley, Leeds LOST 3-12
November 11 v France, Stade Gilbert Brutus, Perpignan WON 27-11
November 14 v Littoral Province, Stade St Ruf, Avignon WON 14-9
November 18 v Combined XIII, Stade Municipal d’Albi, Albi WON 20-9
November 21 v France, Stade Albert Domec, Carcassonne WON 24-2
November 24 v Combined XIII, Stade Chaban-Delmas, Bordeaux WON 20-9
November 28 v France, Stade Municipal, Toulouse DREW 3-3
1971 KIWIS TO BRITAIN AND FRANCE | RIP
Henry Tatana (#455) aged 53 in 1998
Bill Burgoyne (#487) aged 52 in 1999
Doug Gailey (#476) aged 59 in 2007
Bob McGuinn (#481) aged 64 in 2012
Tony Kriletich (#459) aged 72 in 2016
Phil Orchard (#475) aged 70 in 2018
John O’Sullivan (#493) aged 68 in 2018
Bill Deacon (#445) aged 75 in 2019
Mike McClennan (#488) aged 75 in 2019
Robert Orchard (#443) aged 74 IN 2020
John Whittaker (#485) aged 70 in 2020
Shane Dowsett (#495) aged 74 in 2021
Gary Woollard (#420) aged 79 in 2021