Syd Millar

Irish prop, Lions coach and still one of the biggest men in world rugby

Nearly 35 years on, Syd Millar, one of the most influential men in rugby, stills savours the moment when the Lions team he was coaching scored its most famous success.

‘Yes, it was very satisfying,’  he recalls, as if it were only yesterday. The British and Irish Lions squad of 1974 had come through its 22 game tour of South Africa unbeaten. The mighty Springboks had lost the test series and it might have been a 4-0 whitewash, but the last game ended in a 13-13 draw in Johannesburg.

‘Fergus Slattery had a try disallowed because the referee was unsighted. But for that we would have won the game,’ says Millar who had been on Lions tours as a player before being appointed coach. ‘They were a bit shocked. We took them on in the scrum and they couldn’t play our kind of game.’

That explanation might seem to be too simplistic, but Millar, who has devoted much of his life to the cause of rugby and was inducted in the international rugby Hall of Fame in 2003, has a straightforward response. Bob McEwan, a Scottish management consultant, was brought in to help analyse the strengths and weaknesses of the opposition and identify how to win games.

‘We used the model of running a business to identify key factors. We reduced the complexities of the game to simplicities. The players were drilled on elements of play like kicking, possession and pressurising certain positions until it became second nature,’ says Millar.  ‘If you tell players too much, they forget what the plan is and become confused. We kept it simple and it worked.’

At that stage in his rugby career, Syd Millar had already played as a prop for Ireland nearly 40 times between 1958 and 1970. After the African adventure, he continued to give something back to the sport. His progression into the sport’s administration was not a surprise.

‘One percent of rugby is professional and the rest is dependent on amateur effort. And that’s what it’s like with many sports,’ he explains. ‘You need the expertise of people who are solicitors, builders or accountants, for example, to keep clubs running. That’s what I’m doing.’

Although in Millar’s case it is a bit more than a part time, casual commitment since he retired as managing director of a concrete products company. As chairman of the International Rugby Board, which administers the sport from its headquarters in Dublin, he is continually flying the flag for the game he still loves.

‘The exciting thing about rugby is the uncertainties that it constantly throws up. There are always surprises. Who would have thought that England would have such a poor start in the 2005 Six Nations series? You just never know.’

And if Syd Millar were to test your knowledge with this question, could you answer it correctly?  Who is the fourth largest rugby nation in the world in terms of those playing the game?

The answer is Japan where Millar has recently spent time on IRB business following a similar stopover in Hong Kong.

‘Rugby is global, although not to the same extent as football, but there are 116 affiliated members to the IRB now and it’s expanding all the time.’

From Georgia to Madagascar, Galway to Montreal, the numbers playing the oval game continue to rise.

‘We want to help the developing unions as much as we can. That’s why we’re trying to get 7-a-side rugby brought into the Olympic games. There are small countries with fewer numbers who could compete in this more easily. We’re hoping for good news on this in July.’

And Millar sees rugby as the natural home for those he describes as ‘oddities’.

‘What I mean is that rugby lends itself to players of all shapes and sizes. Whether you’re tall, small, large, wide, thin or squat there’s a place for you.’

How could you decline that sort of an invitation from a former prop forward of which it was once reportedly said that the softest thing about him were his teeth?

Look for that old scrumcap and get down to your local club. There could be an Olympic medal to be won.