How Carwyn James became Lions coach is as puzzling today as his squad's ability 46 years ago to confound the All Blacks.

He was a revered soul at Llanelli where the club's style and success brought him acclaim but not enough to be national coach of Wales. If the union wanted James, he wanted them to embrace his creative methods rather than allowing club delegates to meddle with his selection ideas.

That impasse was never resolved, however the Lions appointed the twice capped five-eighths and he masterminded the successful 1971 tour to New Zealand.

James studied coaching methods at Wigan and Manchester United as his inquiring mind searched for skills which transferred across multiple codes. He spent hours researching how the Springboks beat the All Blacks the year before and compiled extensive lists on the teams and individuals the tourists would face in New Zealand.

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He was blessed with a highly-talented squad led by Welsh captain John Dawes with a nucleus of Welsh players who had won the Grand Slam that season.

He preached ambition and accepted mistakes which came with that style but when it came to the test series against the All Blacks, he thought a more buttoned-down approach was a wiser method to challenge history on their three-month expedition.

The Lions had a pack to withstand the All Black power and a collection of gifted backs whose attributes were a cut above the hosts.

That was not apparent when the side opened their 26 game tour with a loss to Queensland, a defeat which prompted their coach Des Connor, a former Wallaby and All Black halfback, to declare: "These Lions are hopeless; they are undoubtedly the worst team ever to be sent to New Zealand."

That impression would not have altered when they scraped to a two point win against NSW before making the trip across the Tasman and the start of their tour in Pukekohe. Victory there was followed by nine more against strong combinations like NZ Maori, a romping display against Wellington and a brutal 14-9 win against Canterbury when their senior props were invalided out of the tour.

The first three tests were set for Carisbrook, Lancaster Park and Athletic Park - grounds which have disappeared with the final venue, Eden Park, the only surviving arena for this year's visit.

The Lions relied on a core group of Welshmen who toured New Zealand two years before and the skilled experience of others like Mike Gibson and Willie John McBride to drive their performances.

Before Barry John tried to start the series, the ball fell over, and he missed his first three attempts for goal but his tactical kicking on a soft track, pressured Fergie McCormick into mistakes and John's penalty near the end guaranteed the 9-3 Lions' victory.

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Lions prop Ian McLauchlan scored the only try when he charged down Alan Sutherland's clearing kick, John Bevan was called back for an intercept and Gerald Davies missed a try as the ball went dead in-goal. The All Blacks capped seven players for the first time with Peter Whiting, Allan McNaughton, Tane Norton and Bob Burgess the best newcomers in a side who worked hard for reluctant captain Colin Meads and outstanding loosie Ian Kirkpatrick.

Lions captain John Dawes bidding farewell to a capacity crowd at Eden Park who watched him and his team make history by becoming the first British team to win a series in New Zealand. Photo / Herald Archive
Lions captain John Dawes bidding farewell to a capacity crowd at Eden Park who watched him and his team make history by becoming the first British team to win a series in New Zealand. Photo / Herald Archive

For the second test, the All Blacks brought Laurie Mains into fullback, Alex Wyllie at No 8 for Sutherland who had broken his leg and picked Howard Joseph at centre with Bryan Williams moved out to his more potent place on the wing.

The improvement was marked and the All Blacks scored five tries in their 22-12 victory with Burgess claiming a double after blindside breaks from Sid Going and Kirkpatrick scoring a remarkable solo try when he burst from a maul near halfway and careered to the line.

The Lions had four more provincial wins as they pondered their only loss in New Zealand while the All Blacks ran into strife when Williams was injured then Whiting was hurt at training and Brian Lochore was whisked out of retirement and off the farm into test duty in Wellington.

Dawes relied on the weather advice he'd received and played with the wind as his forwards dominated the set-pieces and John's kicking pushed the All Blacks back in their territory for much of the half. The Lions led 13-0 at the break with tries to Davies and John and their defence repelled every All Black reply except a try to Mains for the 13-3 result.

At best, the All Blacks could tie the series a fortnight later when 56,000 crammed into Eden Park on a drizzly afternoon. Burgess was lost to concussion but Williams and Whiting recovered from injury to play on their home ground.

Referee John Pring, who controlled all four tests, issued a number of warnings after Whiting punched Gordon Brown at an early lineout and a number of other melees ensued. As Brown was being patched up the All Blacks worked a fine scum move for Wayne Cottrell to score with the Lions nicking a driving try just on the break.

JPR Williams dropped a goal before Mains kicked his second penalty to tie the scores with eight minutes to run as the crowd roared their encouragement. There was no more scoring and the Lions had their piece of history and the 14-14 draw predicted by manager Doug Smith.

It was also the last time Meads was sighted in an All Black jersey which, in a long-lost dressing room tradition, he swapped with his great rival McBride.