Willie John McBride

The former Lions rugby team captain recalls his historic South African tour of 1974. Click Play Audio for an extended podcast interview

Sitting in his County Antrim home, former British and Irish Lions captain Willie John McBride MBE takes a break from an afternoon diet of rugby union football on television.

The new crop of Lions has just won the opening match of the 2009 tour to South Africa and McBride, in the mood to reminisce about the famous unbeaten Lions tour of 1974, isn’t surprised that this present team struggled to win its opening match against the Royal XV 37-25 at the Royal Bafokeng Sports Palace in Rustenburg.

'It was a tough start for them. Not many of them will have played at altitude before. It was a wake up call.Willie John McBride signs a Lions rugby short They showed a spirit to come back and win the match and I hope they do well', comments McBride, whose outstanding playing career began at Ballymena Academy, spanned 63 caps for Ireland and included five Lions tours.

Back in 1974, when McBride led the team on its historic 22 match unbeaten run, things were a lot different in rugby. It was a time when the sport was devoid of much of the hype that is so evident today - the trappings of the modern game.

'It was very much an amateur game,' McBride recalls. 'If someone had said that we would be talking about that tour 35 years on, I would have laughed in their face.'

When the Lions toured New Zealand four years ago, the squad consisted of 44 players plus half as many back up staff. 'We didn’t have any of this. There were 30 players. Syd Miller was the coach and Alan Thomas was the manager. They would have dealt with the press and I would have to be at every press conference. The captain had lots to do.

'Now they have a management team of between 12 and 20 people with a throwing-in coach, kicking coach, defence coach, head coach and it goes on and on.'

Even so, McBride remembers fondly how his Lions mauled the Springboks to claim a unique place in sporting history, by winning three test matches and drawing the fourth.

'It still resonates with me,' says the former lock, who also captained the Ireland squad 11 times. 'It was very much part of my life and without doubt the highlight of my rugby playing career.

'McBride competes for IrelandObviously to captain a Lions tour that didn’t lose a game is something special. Even the All Blacks had never won there [in South Africa]. You can’t get better than that.'

The 1974 tour went ahead in spite of strong opposition from the South African government and the anti-apartheid movement alike. As the Lions continued to chalk up victory after victory, those in South Africa’s black community who were initially against the visit began to support the tourists.

In a country where rugby was a symbol of the Afrikaners’ iron fisted system of rule, the rugby players from Ireland, England, Scotland and Wales brought the myth of invincibility to an end. Nevertheless, McBride admits that the political dimension of the tour was not something that he relished.

'I think we did a lot of good by simply being there. The blacks were our biggest support because they wanted us to beat the Springboks for the reason that rugby football was the seen as the white man’s game. But we never got involved in the politics.

'I was 34 years of age,' he concludes. 'It was going to be my last tour. I was captain. The only reason I wanted to go to South Africa was to win. It was brilliant. I could have gone to heaven after that.'

Padraig Coyle