Willie John McBride recalls the battles and the brilliance of the Lions' most successful tour of Springbok country. Brian Viner tracked him down
"Willie John McBride, one of the most unbelievable men you'll ever meet in your life, says Bennett, for him, was the best. When something wanted to be done, he could do it."
These words, from an interview I once did with Cliff Morgan, himself one of the great fly-halves whom I had asked to compare two other great Welsh No 10s in Barry John and Phil Bennett, reverberate in my mind as I arrive at the dining-room of the Celtic Manor Hotel in South Wales.
It's not McBride's preference for Bennett that I remember, though, but what Morgan said about McBride. One of the most unbelievable men you'll ever meet in your life! Even allowing for Morgan's wonderfully poetic way with words, it is quite a preface to our breakfast together.
One of the most unbelievable men I'll ever meet in my life, prosaically tucking into eggs, bacon, sausage and tomato, rises from the table to greet me. He turns 69 tomorrow, the Ulsterman from farming stock who 35 years ago in South Africa, as a second-row forward of formidable strength, led the British Isles on the most thunderously successful of all tours, 22 games yielding 21 wins, one draw and a whole load of Springboks nursing bruised ribs and broken noses.
But age has not diminished McBride's physical presence. He is still huge, packing a handshake that would crush a medium-sized animal.
We are meeting early, well before 8am, because he has a flight to catch to Belfast, following a "Lions Legends" dinner the evening before.
It is a fair bet that after a late, sociable night he would rather not have to share his breakfast, and yet he is the soul of affability, recalling the good old days as though nobody has ever asked him about them before.
By 1974 he was a Lions veteran, having toured in 1962, 1966, 1968 and 1971. But with the Lions back in South Africa it is Springbok country, where he first landed as an unworldly 21-year-old only four years after he started playing rugby, that I want to know about most.
"It would be wrong to call us disorganised in 1962," he says, with a huge rumbling laugh, "because we weren't even organised. We didn't even have a team tracksuit, the whole thing was a joke. In those days, it was supposed to be all about the taking part, and they picked guys because they thought they would be good ambassadors for the game, not because they might win.
“What rubbish, and of course we were found out by South Africa. There it was the national game, organised from bottom to top, from the schoolboys up."
He spears some bacon, some sausage, in fact about half a pig. "Arthur Smith was our captain, a nice man and sadly he's gone now, but he was picked because he was a nice man. A good ambassador. Which was no use when some bloody forward was carrying your head off." Another mirthful rumble.
"We were a bit better in '68," he continues. "Ronnie Dawson, a very serious man, was assistant to the manager, and tried to organise us. We won all our provincial games, I think, and we'd got a free pair of boots, and Lions socks, although I think we provided our own shorts.
“I also remember a letter suggesting that we bring a pullover because it could get very cold in the Transvaal in the evenings." He shakes his head in disbelief.
"It was so amateur it's unbelievable, and we had no medical care. If I have any envy of these guys today, that's what I envy them, the superb medical care. If you were injured in those days
they'd say, ‘Let us know when you're fit again', and that was it. All we had was St John [the St John Ambulance Brigade] rushing on to the field, two little old men with caps on, waving a bit of Elastoplast, a pair of scissors and a bottle of water."
As the 1971 tour to New Zealand approached, McBride decided that he'd rather not go. "I'd done three tours and we'd been thrashed every time. I wanted to concentrate on my career in banking. But [the Llanelli and Lions coach] Carwyn James came over to see me. A lovely, quiet little man, who used to sit and smoke cigarettes, he said, ‘Why aren't you coming?' I said, 'Because I'm sick of losing'.
He said, ‘We're not going to lose. I'm going to pick a team to beat New Zealand.' Then he said to me, ‘I need you'. And you know, when somebody says that to you..."
For the first time, a Lions squad was picked not from the nicest chaps who'd make the best ambassadors, but from the finest talent available, which was fine talent indeed.
The 1971 tourists remain the only Lions team to have won a Test series in New Zealand, but to the perennial question, McBride deems the 1974 team better.
"We had greater depth," he says. "We could have picked any XV, which we couldn't have done in '71."
And so to South Africa 1974, the tour that made Lions legends of the 17 men who played in the four Tests, and a legend of a certain infamous call, 99, which was McBride's signal for his players to smack whichever opponent was closest to them, a strategy which reached a bloody crescendo in the third Test in Port Elizabeth, the
notorious "Battle of Boet Erasmus Stadium".
But before all that came the controversy over apartheid, with the activist Peter Hain leading the vehement calls for the Lions not to give succour to a repugnant philosophy. The Wales flanker John Taylor had already decided not to go, but nobody else, and I ask McBride whether he had any misgivings himself. He is far too nice a man to snort with derision, but he comes close.
"They said we were supporting apartheid, but that's nonsense. I lived in Ireland, with all the problems there. Why should it be any different in South Africa? If anything we did good. We played a black team for the first time, and a coloured team. That wouldn't have happened if we hadn't gone."
He thinks that the pressure on the team not to tour, even from Harold Wilson's government, helped to unite the players, who were already bonded by the amateur ethos.
"We had coal miners in that team, steel workers, lawyers, teachers, doctors, all going to South Africa to win a Test series. They were wonderful men, great
men, a tremendous example of all the things you can think of from a team point of view: spirit, loyalty, consistency..."
And quick fists, which brings us, inexorably, to the 99 call. He laughs. "We'd been intimidated on previous tours, which goes back to the thing about it being (here he essays a plummy English accent) the taking part that counts, not the winning. Well, I'm an Irishman and I don't bloody do that. South Africa certainly didn't.
“I knew they'd target key players, like Gareth [Edwards] and Phil Bennett, so when it came to the East London game, I said, 'Right, I don't want people running round the field for 15 minutes chasing some guy to pay him back, I've seen too much of that in rugby.
“We'll deal with it and deal with it together, then get back to playing rugby. You'll belt the guy beside you, which will shake them, because they've never had that from a British team before'. The call was originally 999, but that was too long. I tried to call the 99 once, but everyone knew anyway.
“We had three or four punch-ups in 22 games, but we scored more points, more tries, on that tour than ever before. That's not a sign of a dirty team. We sorted out the nonsense and got back to playing rugby. In many ways the fighting stuff is a myth."
Another huge belly laugh rocks the Celtic Manor foundations.
"When I was telling them what we'd do, I remember Phil Bennett saying, ‘Excuse me, am I in this?' I said ‘Phil, we're all in this,' but it was all I could do not to burst out laughing. Phil tells a wonderful story now. He says, 'I didn't want to get involved in hitting the fellow next to me, so I went for the ballboy, but he bloody well hit me back'..."
A thick finger wipes away a tear of mirth.
"Oh, it was great fun we had. I used to get Bobby [Windsor, the hooker] at the front of the line-out and say to him, ‘If that scrum-half is not looking for you instead of the ball after five minutes, you're having a bad day'. So we kept it all away from Phil. And in that third Test they picked their so-called toughies, but you know, you don't mess with guys like Fran Cotton. That guy Moaner Van Heerden, he was carried off." Another tear is wiped away. "Oh dear..."
It is safe to assume the latest Irish giant to captain the Lions, Paul O'Connell, will not instruct his players to thump the man next to them before the first Test in Durban a fortnight tomorrow.
And the game has changed in myriad other ways. But if McBride were asked to draw on his unparalleled experience of playing Lions rugby in South Africa, what might he say to the class of 2009?
He smiles. "You know, when they were in Australia [in 2001], with Martin Johnson as captain, [the manager] Donal Lenihan asked me to present the jerseys before the game, but he said, 'I want you to speak to the team first'.
“Well, I'd never talked to a professional team in my life. But I went in, and I said, ‘Guys, I want to sit with you'. Rather than stand and lecture them, you know. I thought, ‘Jesus, what will I bloody say?' but you can only say what you know and what you did.
“This was a professional team, but whenever it comes to the crunch, it's the same. And that's what I said to them. Your bodies are right because you've done the preparation, now your minds have to be right.
“You don't blame the guy who drops the ball, or the guy who's not there to cover the situation, because you're a team, and you're all in it together, and it's how you react when your backs are to the wall that will show what kind of team you are."
And he then adds: “None of that has changed. It's exactly the same as it ever was."
Willie John McBride is an HSBC Lions Legend. HSBC is the principal partner of the British and Irish Lions Tour to South Africa 2009.