Willie John McBride: a lion in every sense
Age has not wearied nor the years condemned the 1974 British and Irish Lions.
Forty years on from their unprecedented rampage through South West Africa, Rhodesia — which would become Namibia and Zimbabwe respectively — and South Africa, the awe and affection in which the side coached by Syd Millar and captained by his Ballymena club colleague Willie John McBride shows no signs of waning.
And why would it? What the '74 Lions achieved is the stuff of legend. The Springboks had not lost a series in 78 years. But the Millar/McBride-fronted Lions —with fellow-Ulstermen Dick Milliken, Ken Kennedy, Stewart McKinney and Mike Gibson there to assist — reduced that awesome record to rubble in the space of 10 remarkable weeks.
On Thursday, June 19, those six giants in the pantheon of all-time Ulster greats will be joined at the Culloden Hotel by another 21 of those who re-wrote rugby history and chiselled their names into British and Irish sports folklore.
Even now the mention of their names conjures up images of red-shirted gladiators who, having refused to be intimidated, proceeded to outwit and outplay the mighty Springboks.
England's Fran Cotton, Andy Ripley, Geoff Evans, Alan Old, Alan Morley, Roger Uttley, Tony Neary, Chris Ralston and Mike Burton, Scotland's Ian McLauchlan, Gordon Brown, Ian McGeechan, Sandy Carmichael, Andy Irvine and Billy Steele, Wales' Gareth Edwards, Phil Bennett, JPR Williams, JJ Williams, Bobby Windsor, Mervyn Davies, Tom David, Clive Rees and Roy Bergiers, with Fergus Slattery, Tom Grace and Johnny Moloney completing the Irish contingent.
Sadly, Brown, Ripley and Davies — a trio of Test-match forwards – have died. So, too, has team manager Alun Thomas. And Neary, McGeechan and Rees are unable to attend next month's 40th anniversary reunion which is a fund-raiser for the excellent work of the Wooden Spoon Children's Charity (Ulster Region) which to date has donated over £600,000 to help disadvantaged and disabled children and young people in the province.
McBride and Millar are admirably modest about what was achieved four decades ago.
“I don't feel like a legend and I'm sure Syd doesn't, either!” the '74 skipper guffawed upon finding himself accorded that status.
“No, looking back, it was just brilliant to be part of that. It was my fifth Lions tour and the first three I'd been on we had lost, so to finish with two winning Lions tours was just a dream. We'd beaten New Zealand in '71 — and we haven't beaten them since. So to then be part of the '74 tour of South Africa, and to have been captain was just unbelievable.”
There is unmistakable admiration in McBride's voice when he talks about the men alongside whom he made history.
“They were a great bunch of guys who stuck together. And there were a number of senior players on that tour who were a big, big support to me as a captain and, I'm sure, Syd would say the same as a coach. We were just so lucky that there were so many of those great players around in that particular era and in that particular year.
“The Slatterys, the Gareth Edwards, the Fran Cottons, Mouse McLauchlan — you could go on and on. They were all good, strong players. But not only that; they were guys who knew their game and they were guys who played with pride — pride in their performance every day. They were men who wouldn't accept second best. It was just magic to be part of that.”
Asked about the make-up of the Test side, he recalled: “Somebody said to me the other day, 'You were very clever in '74; you picked two players from each country in the pack'.
“And I started to count them and I realised, good Lord, he was right. I'd never thought of that before.”
He admits that, over the years, the story of his '99' call, amounting to a get-stuck-in-boys-battle-cry, has probably grown somewhat in the telling.
“That all became a bit of a myth,” he smiled, leaving one to wonder just how much is true.
“But you've got to go back and look at what experience had taught us. In 1962 in South Africa they smashed Richard Sharp's jaw before the first Test and we lost him. In '66, in New Zealand, they got Dai Watkins.
“In '68, again in South Africa, they got Barry John in what is now called a spear-tackle and smashed his shoulder. Luckily it wasn't worse than that.
“Then in '71 we had that stupid game against Canterbury before the first Test and we lost two front row players.
“So in '74 I was determined that wasn't going to happen to us. My attitude was, 'Right, we'll sort this out straight away'.
“And there was a very good reason for that, for in rugby, if anything happens, you then have a guy who's chasing somebody in order to get his own back.
“I didn't want that; I wanted us to be concentrating only on playing rugby. I didn't want anybody distracted and angry over something that had been done to them. So I said we'd deal with it immediately — just scatter everything and then we'd go back to playing rugby again.
“It happened once and I don't think it was even called. It was just a reaction; the story has been grossly exaggerated. It never happened again, although there was the odd scuffle, but you're always going to get that.
“But what that did was spread the message around the provincial sides — and in our experience that was always where the problems lay — that you don't mess with these guys.”
Millar's version dovetails perfectly with that of his captain. The coach said: “We were determined not to be bullied, which is something they always try to do to you. So we just wanted to send out a message that we weren't going to be bullied.
“In the game against Eastern Province, we know that the Springboks coach went into the dressing room and told them, 'See what these fellas are like. Rough them up a bit'.
“Well, that didn't work for them. At half-time Hannes Marais said: 'Okay, let's play rugby', and we said, 'No, not yet!'
“That was the game where JPR ran 40 metres to whack a second row (Moaner van Heerden). So the word was out and they got the message very quickly.”
McBride explained: “There is a thing on Lions tours where you're nearly regarded as being an English team — all proper chaps who will turn the other cheek. Well, that was far from the truth, certainly in '74.
“If you look at the Test side there's Fran Cotton, Bobby Windsor, Mouse McLaughlan, myself, Gordon Brown, Fergus Slattery, Mervyn Davies and Roger Uttley. Now you're not going to mess with eight guys like that and get away with it.
“So that old ‘British chaps' thing was gone, along with any idea that they might rough us up a bit before a Test.”
Their record shows that as well as being able to look out for themselves and one another, the '74 Lions could play magnificent rugby.
Clearly it is going to be a night to remember, in every sense, on June 19.
SOME PRICELESS MEMORIES FROM '74
De Bruyn had an eye for humour
During the brutal Third Test in 1974 there was a shriek from one of the Springbok forwards, Johannes de Bruyn, who had lost his glass eye.
The warring packs called a ceasefire to search for it in the mud. They duly did, whereupon De Bruyn popped it back in its socket.
“And there was Cyclops,” Lions lock Gordon Brown later told dinner audiences, “with tufts of grass hanging from behind his eye. I stood in amazement, he just nodded.”
Years later, with Brown in failing health, De Bruyn came to London for a fund-raising dinner at which he confirmed the story was indeed true — before presenting his old adversary with the glass eye mounted on a carved wooden rugby ball.
That telephone incident rings a bell
TOUR manager, Alun Thomas, angrily asked which Lion had charged £87 of telephone calls to his room.
Thomas flourished what he thought was his trump card.
"I have checked with the International Operator and all of the calls were made to Newport 684210."
Hooker Bobby Windsor, the only Gwent man on the trip, leapt to his feet and shoued: "OK, which one of you b’s has been phoning my wife?"
Any Port in a storm with the Lions
In Port Elizabeth the sound of splintering furniture, exploding fire extinguishers and the lapping of water in the lobby brought an apoplectic hotel manager to the room of the Lions' captain.
“Mr McBride,” the manager screamed, “your players are wrecking my hotel.”
The great man sat cross-legged on his bed in his underpants, puffing on his pipe.
“Are there many dead?” he enquired.
“I've called the police,” the manager replied.
“And tell me, these police of yours,” McBride said. “Will there be many of them?”
Mee and my Gunners could learn things
Lions coach Syd Millar recalls: “Arsenal manager, Bertie Mee, told me after seeing one of our sessions in South Africa, 'I wish I could get my footballers to commit themselves to training the way those guys did'. He was amazed. They worked hard.
“We were organised off the field, too, and that was important.
“One of the things that Alun Thomas and myself decided before we picked anybody was that we should involve the players as much as possible.”
We were proof that practice makes perfect
“I've never been with a team that worked so hard in training, said McBride.
There were guys you couldn't get in off the field some days. Slattery, for instance, would always do half an hour more than anybody else. Phil Bennett would be practising his kicking, Gareth Edwards would be practising his passing.
“There were things like this that they all did over and beyond what Syd wanted. And these were all amateurs, remember.
“There are players who put in extra work nowadays, but they're paid to do that. These guys weren't getting paid — but they did it because they just wanted to be one step better.”
Belfast Telegraph Digital