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'Grizz' Wyllie talks up Lions tour rivalry

NZ Newswire logoNZ Newswire 31/05/2017 By Ian Ransom

Alex Wyllie, the New Zealand forward, getting away with the ball as he breaks through to score their first try © PA Archive/Press Association Images Alex Wyllie, the New Zealand forward, getting away with the ball as he breaks through to score their first try Blood will be spilt and tempers may flare when the British and Irish Lions clash with the world champion All Blacks but stricter referees and modern technology should prevent a repeat of the thuggish incidents that have blighted past series.

That's at least the opinion of Alex "Grizz" Wyllie, the former All Blacks enforcer and coach who was in the thick of it during the 1971 tour, when the Lions prevailed 2-1 over Colin Meads' side in a hard-fought and spiteful series.

Wyllie holds the distinction of sending one of the 1971 tourists home, simply by getting his face in the way of a clenched fist during the infamous Canterbury v Lions tour match in Christchurch.

The stalwart loose forward had a cut cheek after wearing a punch from Ray McLoughlin in the 'Battle of Lancaster Park' but it was the Irish prop who came off second best with a broken thumb ending his tour.

The Lions won the match 14-3 a week before the opening test in Dunedin but also lost another prop in Sandy Carmichael for the series due to a cracked cheek bone.

Much has been written of Canterbury's role in a clash described as the "dirtiest" played by Lions lock Delme Thomas, and Wyllie freely admitted his red-and-black team mates were deliberate in their plans to go in hard.

But the gruff 72-year-old said most of the beating up was committed off the field by Scottish tour manager Doug Smith, who he portrayed as a master of media management.

"A fair bit was made out of it," Wyllie told Reuters in an interview from his farm outside Christchurch.

"I mean, Doug Smith, their manager, he sorted out their media and our media with what happened.

"I knew some of the reporters were going to say, 'typically hard-fought New Zealand game' and Doug Smith got hold of them and said, 'This is too much. This isn't rugby.'

"And it actually blew it up probably a damn sight more than it really was. There were scuffles in it, yes. But not the way it was blown up in some reports."

The Lions' front row had, in any case, set the tone by boring in at scrum-time in the previous tour match, said Wyllie, prompting his Canterbury team mates to resolve to stamp it out in Christchurch.

Welsh halfback Gareth Edwards remembers being 'nearly decapitated' by Wyllie but the New Zealander claims he was a non-combatant when McLoughlin swung the haymaker that broke his thumb.

"When I tell people I was actually trying to stop something, they say, 'Yeah, you're joking,'" he laughed.

"I've caught up with Ray again in Ireland again and we've had a bit of a laugh about it."

The Lions went on to claim the four-test series with a tense 14-14 draw in the final match at Eden Park, and Wyllie, who was the All Blacks' No.8 in three of the four games, agreed that the Canterbury firestorm may have galvanised the tourists.

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