The Long Suva Hangover: Remembering When Fiji Upset the British and Irish Lions, in 1977
Courtesy of Keith Quinn
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The Long Suva Hangover: Remembering When Fiji Upset the British and Irish Lions, in 1977

Thanks to a dodgy home referee and an overindulgence of sun, booze and the beach, Fiji managed to pull off one of the greatest international rugby upsets ever.
June 1, 2017, 7:03pm

It was August 15 1977, and twenty odd burly British blokes were in Fiji having the time of their lives.

Just a day before, the British and Irish Lions had landed in Suva after a bruising three months in New Zealand, which saw them play on rugby paddocks from Masterton to Westport and the majority of Kiwi rugby destinations between.

Given the four-match test series was lost 3-1, the 26-game tour would be written in history as a failure. Yet the Lions had impressed, losing just one tour match – a 21-9 defeat to New Zealand Universities in Christchurch on June 14 – and only missing out a drawn test series in a thrilling 10-9 loss to the All Blacks in the final international, at Auckland's Eden Park on August 13.

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It was clear the boys had earned a bit of time with their feet up, and a few caps loosened off a few bottles. They were in Fiji after all, right?

Less than 24 hours later under a scorching hot sun that must've made hangovers truly agonizing, they marched onto the rock hard rugby pitch at Suva's Buckhurst Park.

In front of 20,000 cheering Fijians, they played their part in one of the most great forgotten international rugby upsets of all time.

It seems nearly impossible now to imagine a Lions team - who start their latest New Zealand tour against the Provincial Barbarians in Whangarei on Saturday - playing a game in Fiji at the tail end of a Kiwi excursion.

From European clubs' reluctance to have their players away too long or in line for unneeded injuries to a tricky navigation to international rugby politics, there are simply too many barriers in the way now to make it happen.

Back in 2015, Fiji Rugby cheekily attempted to snare a game with the Lions but, unsurprisingly, had their audacious proposal turned down.

"We sent in an email to them and we received a polite response to say, 'no the schedule is too busy," Fijian rugby chief Radrodro Tabualevu told the Daily Mail.

None of those barriers existed on August 14 1977, when the Lions squad and coaching staff jumped on a plane in Auckland and headed to Suva.It was a star-studded Lions group that had pushed Tane Norton's All Blacks within a point of squaring a four-match test series.

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Legendary Welsh first-five Phil Bennett led the side, whose back line featured Scottish stars Andy Irvine and Ian McGeechan. McGeechan would later be knight for services to rugby, and coached four future Lions tours. The forward pack sported big English lock Bill Beaumont – the current chair of World Rugby – and legendarily tough Irish prop Willie Duggan.

While the '77 Lions didn't sport the sheer class that the '71 side – the only British and Irish tourists to ever defeat the All Blacks in a test series – possessed, they were a tough notch group who would push New Zealand closer than any other Lions in the next 30 years.

While their Fijian opposition were coming off a disappointing 1976 season, which featured a three test whitewash by Australia, they were generally considered as a handier 15-a-side team than they are today.

In 1970, Fiji defeated the Barbarians 29-9 in Gosford, New South Wales, while the All Blacks needed a last minute try to beat them 14-13 in Suva, in 1974.

Around 20,000 people packed into Suva's Buckhurst Park to watch Fiji's 25-21 upset of the British & Irish Lions. Photo credit: Courtesy of Keith Quinn.

The Lions would have known little about their opponents, pre-game, and set out to enjoy Fijian life once they got off the plane from Auckland.

Legendary rugby broadcaster Keith Quinn was the only Kiwi in Fiji for the game, and wrote about the relaxed nature of stopover in his post-tour book 'Lions 77.'

"This is the life,' said [Welsh prop] Charlie Faulkner relaxing beside the hotel pool," Quinn wrote. "The next time the Lions comes Down Under, they should play 26 games in Fiji and one in New Zealand!"

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"The local hospitality was something else and in the Lions state of relieved euphoria, having ride themselves of All New Zealanders … they settled down to relaxing and some big public drinking sessions," Quinn continued.

"We lost a day here somewhere," said manager George Burrell to the after-match crowd. He was not referring to crossing the dateline or losing his calendar."

Quinn recalled sixteen members of the Lions squad, and a number of British press, racking up a $700 bill [more than $2500 today] while out partying. It was a Monday night, and the game was due to be played the following afternoon.

"The food was nice,' Irishman Moss Keane recalled the next day,' ah but the wine was terrific,' and he rolled his eyes back into his head in satisfied reverie," Quinn wrote.

While the starting line-up the next day wasn't the Lions best – Quinn wrote that coach John Dawes had joked 'it'll be the first fifteen names out of the hat' – it did still feature eight players from the final test against the All Blacks just four days before.

In recent years, Fiji has become a world power in rugby sevens and won the first ever men's Olympic gold medal in the sport in Rio de Janeiro last year. Source: World Rugby/Youtube.

There are few available reports about how the match between 25-21 Fijian victory over the Lions unfolded exactly, but from Quinn's account, the match – which was not technically considered a test, unfortunately – seems like a cracker.

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"It was a … truly colourful sight," he wrote. "The ground is back-dropped by waving coconut palms and the Pacific Ocean; and the playing pitch all year round is as hard as a rock.

"Fiji ran the ball at every opportunity and deserved their win. They scored five tries … some of them thrilling and all containing excellent authority in their execution.

"To their credit, the Lions contributed fully to the spectacle, not for any great running moves – they were more content to kick for position thn spill the ball, but for the way they contributed to the spirit of the occasion.

"In the scoring, the Lions drew up to 21-21, but then Vauto Narisia, the flanker, took a pass from his captain, Pio Boco Tikoisuva, and dived like an Olympic swimmer off the blocks for the winning try.

"The noise was deafening and the clamour loud and rapturous; the score enabled Fiji to score its first-ever win over a major touring team."

Quinn wrote that local referee missed several obvious forward passes by his countrymen, while a 22-4 penalty count against the tourists seems to indicate it was a real uphill battle for the Lions.

"As the players left the field, Fiji's famed Police Band played 'Isa Lei', the Fijian farewell song and then 'Now Is The Hour," Quinn continued.

"The Lions boarded the windowless vehicle still in their playing gear, and as they were driven down a dusty road out of the Park, the emotion of the day reached its climax.

"The happy crowd push towards the slow-moving bus, the Lions waved and shook hands by the hundreds, and then the band stuck up 'Will Ye No Come Back Again?"

They never would, but for Fijian rugby fans, the memory of the occasion will long linger. But while they remain the only international team the Lions have never defeated in the rugby almanacs, a re-match would certainly hit the spot, too.

"We will have our day! " Tabualevu said, back in 2015. "The Lions should know that Fiji is the only country they haven't beaten. It should be a bee in their bonnet.

"Our message to the Lions is 'you can pass us by, but you will have to come back here one day to redeem yourselves. You can't run forever."

Expect a few less hangovers when if it happens, next time.