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'If you went to pick potatoes, it wasn't like you could stop at half-time. You didn't give in, you didn't stop when a job was half done'

Willie John McBride on how farm life equipped him with tools to become rugby great, gripes with modern game, and Stockdale's rise

Willie John McBride
Willie John McBride
Willie John McBride
McBride in 1974
McBride with Lisa Bowman
Willie John McBride rises to take possession for Ireland
Willie John McBride captaining the British and Irish Lions in 1974
Jonathan Bradley

By Jonathan Bradley

In the modern day, when rugby players arrive on the senior scene long since sculpted in gyms from their teenage years, those that follow an ever so slightly different path to the upper echelons are hailed all the more.

Listen out for when Rory Best, Tadhg Furlong or, had he overcome his injury concerns, Sean O'Brien make a positive contribution to the Ireland cause over the next seven weeks and you'll no doubt hear a commentator refer to the player in question and their "farmer's strength".

As players' physiques become more and more identikit, it's a description becoming as routinely called upon as the mention of Tommy Bowe's under-age GAA career when the Monaghan man rises to claim a high ball.

But if it's a turn of phrase that seems something of a cliché, it would have been a perfectly apt portrait to be used throughout the illustrious career of one of Ulster, Ireland and the Lions' true, true greats.

For all his feats in white, green and red jerseys, one of the most remarkable aspects of Willie John McBride, still the only man to captain an undefeated Lions tour, is how late he came to the game of, as he will always refer to it, rugby football.

A man who can stand alongside Mike Gibson and Jack Kyle as the greatest players this province has ever produced, he barely touched a rugby ball until he was 17 and yet was representing Ireland just five years later.

Virtually incomprehensible today, but McBride credits his agricultural upbringing for instilling all the character traits he needed to reach the very top of the game, even if his work on the land began long before he could count to 15, let alone contemplate making a first XV.

After his father passed away suddenly when he was only four, McBride, his two elder brothers Robert and John, and sister Sadie had to grow up fast, assisting their ever-resolute mother to keep their 50-acre farm in Moneyglass as the source of the family's livelihood.

While the long hours of labour kept the would-be towering lock away from after-school activities like rugby, today he credits those years and years of early graft for giving him both the physical and mental toughness he needed to make his indelible mark on the game at the highest level.

"There's no question in my mind that I played 20 years, 14 of those at international level, with a very late start because the farming gave me everything I required," says the 78-year-old (below), who toured with the Lions a remarkable five times.

"It's not like today where it's all scientific and diet how you build yourself up. There were no gymnasiums in my day.

"But farming in those days was very labour intensive, we didn't even have tractors then.

"We had to do it all ourselves. My farm upbringing was hugely important from a physical point of view but also a mental point of view."

Even a career as historic as the great Ballymena clubman's had it's ups and downs, but McBride believes it was his early years that forged his resolute streak.

"If you went out to pick a field of potatoes it wasn't that you could stop at half-time," he laughs.

"You developed this thing, that you don't give in. You didn't stop when a job was half done. There's always disappointments in life, and you had to cope with disappointments on the farm just like in the game. Learning how to cope with the disappointment of losing, that's very important."

One such notable disappointment came in the green jersey of Ireland during what was then the Five Nations of 1972. He had made his debut 10 years prior, finding out about his call-up in the pages of this newspaper, but over that first decade of international service he had never beaten France away and England in Twickenham just the once.

In '72, both were vanquished in the space of a memorable fortnight only to see the chase for a first Grand Slam since 1948 to go up in smoke when, thanks to The Troubles, Wales and Scotland would not travel to their fixtures in Dublin.

Ahead of today's Ireland v France clash in the Stade de France, the wait for an Irish side to do the same double over England and France goes on.

"It's a real pity we didn't get that finished," McBride says. "It was a great disappointment to us. We had a great team, we were full of confidence, on song, and we'd come through without any injuries.

"To win in France… in my years, when you look at my record in France, we only won that one time in Paris. They were brilliant then France, even if they were thrashing you, you had to admire them.

"To beat them and England that year, but not see it through, we felt that we had a big opportunity and felt like it was taken away from us.

"There you are though, that's the way life is, and if the game does anything for you it teaches you how to deal with disappointments."

While McBride will naturally watch how this year's Championship progresses and remains a lover of the game, he admits the metamorphosis undergone since his own playing days leaves him feeling somewhat cold.

"Quite honestly, there's a lot now that I don't understand," he sighs.

"The referees seem to be the most important people on the pitch nowadays.

"The game has just changed so much, there's guys playing at out-half and in the centre who are as big as me.

"When I compare the game today to when I played, it's so different. I think back to the backline we had in 1971 (on the Lions' victorious tour to New Zealand). Gareth Edwards, Barry John, Mike Gibson, John Dawes, David Duckham, Gerald Davies and JPR Williams.

"Skill, pace, everything, those guys had it in abundance. But the game is so different, would there still be a place for them? I don't think so anymore, not when there's so much emphasis on defence and size. They've killed the space for those players to play in."

One player he does, however, enjoy to see express himself is Ulster and Ireland's Jacob Stockdale.

The 21-year-old winger makes his first Six Nations appearance today in Paris, but it was against French opposition for Ulster, La Rochelle last month, that he really caught McBride's eye.

"When you see a player with vision and using the space, and his pace, it's great to see," he enthuses.

"He can score tries out of nothing because it's not just pace, it's change of pace. It's very deceptive because you think he's already going full pelt and then he goes faster again. That's so hard to stop, I wouldn't have liked to have had to catch him."

Coming from the great man himself, high praise indeed.

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