British and Irish Lions
February 11, 2022 5:20 p.m.
Reading time: 5 minutes
One of the greatest openside flankers of all time, Fergus Slattery boasts a record in the famous British & Irish Lions red shirt that is nothing short of remarkable.
A tourist in 1971 and a member of the ‘Invincibles’ in 1974, Slattery was only defeated once in his 25 appearances for the Lions – and that lone loss came in his very first game.
After losing 15-11 to a Queensland side in Brisbane who had 11 Wallabies in the starting XV, he went 23 straight games unbeaten before drawing a draw three years later.
It’s a feat that has stood the test of time – and will likely never happen again – but despite the incredible feat, Slattery never forgot his introduction to the Lions.
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“Before coming to New Zealand in the 1971 Tour, we played two games in Australia. We opened the Tour against Queensland and then played New South Wales,” Slattery recalled.
“I don’t think if we had played as well as any Lions team could have we would have won that game in Brisbane. The penalty tally against us was 15-3 in Queensland and then 21-3 in New South Wales.
“It was unbelievable. We managed to beat New South Wales 14-12, but if we could make that many mistakes in those two games then go to New Zealand and go unbeaten in all of our provincial games. , that says a lot about our team or the referees.
While Slattery did not make an appearance in all four Tests in 1971, he became a vital member of the side that became the only Lions side to win a series in New Zealand.
The Irish third line played in 12 winning teams in provincial fixtures, including the now infamous ‘Battle of Canterbury’ – one of the most brutal matches in Lions history.
Taking place on June 19, a week before the first Test against the All Blacks, the tourists were put to hell by the hosts at Lancaster Park in Christchurch as they prevailed 14-3.
Slattery was among the players on the Lions injured list after the game, suffering a concussion and having his front teeth knocked out to the root after being hit during a lineout.
“Canterbury just came out to kick our asses,” said Slattery, who only made his debut for Ireland a year earlier after impressive form for Blackrock RFC.
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That 1971 tour would prove to be a huge learning curve for the then 22-year-old, with Welsh rower John Taylor favored for the Test series which the Lions won 2-1.
But Slattery was too good to ignore in 1974 and alongside Roger Uttley and Mervyn Davies completed what is considered one of the best Lions back lines of all time.
Taking the place of openside flanker, Slattery used his punishing pace and nose for possession to harass the Springbok fullbacks from the first whistle to the last in South Africa.
Where most No.7s were aiming for confrontation from the scrum, the Ireland international was so fast he was able to drive into opposing crosses as quickly as the ball.
The Springboks were overwhelmed 3-0 in the four-game series, with the final game being drawn. It’s the only game the Lions haven’t won as Slattery has scored six tries in 12 outings.
Slattery thought he had scored a crucial seventh try in the dying moments of the fourth and final Test at Ellis Park as the Lions crossed the finish line in pursuit of a perfect Tour.
He appeared to fire the ball for a try that would have broken the deadlock at 13-13, but South African referee Max Baise saw no clear grounding and disallowed the score.
“The referee is always right even if he’s wrong,” Slattery said.
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“But I don’t think that’s the reason why we didn’t win that final test. As a team, we played like we packed our bags to go home on Thursday. I certainly felt that and I think we were probably a little guilty for pushing that fourth test on the agenda a little bit.
“We had some injury issues and maybe we didn’t give the game the attention it deserved at the end of a long but otherwise successful Tour.
The 1971 and 1974 tours produced the Lions’ only consecutive wins since their tour debut in the 19th century with five wins and two draws in eight Tests.
So what made these Lions so special?
“We were all so lucky to have been together at the same time. When you look at the quality of the players we had to choose from, it was superb,” added Slattery. “If you picked an all-time Lions XV, you would probably find it dominated by players from that era.”
Capped 61 times for Ireland, Slattery went on to lead Ireland’s most successful tour team of all time in 1979 winning seven of eight matches in Australia, including Tests in Brisbane and Sydney.
He captained Ireland a total of 18 times and was also a member of the Triple Crown winning side in 1982 before playing his last game for his country against France two years later.
Slattery was inducted into the International Rugby Hall of Fame in 2007, while continuing his association with tourists by joining the board of the British & Irish Lions Charitable Trust in 2020.