The Lions went unbeaten through 22 games on tour in South Africa
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It was spring 1974 in the northern suburbs of Leeds. Judy McGeechan was keeping a close eye on the stop-watch. Her husband, Ian, was pounding his way round the Horsforth cricket ground, laps of 400 metres. Then it was The Hill. 15-20 short sprints followed by 600 metre up-and-down long sprints. The next day is was the same, all bar the timings which Ian McGeechan looked to better. Day after day, just as soon as he had finished his shift as a geography and PE teacher at Firtree Middle School, it continued.
McGeechan’s dedication to the cause was typical. In amateur times, his attitude was professional. He was not alone. All around the isles, 30 of the home unions’ finest were getting in shape, in their own ways and in their time, unseen and unscripted. It was hard yakka but it paid off. McGeechan went from 11 and a half stone to 12st 3lbs through constant conditioning as well as "steak for breakfast, lunch and dinner when in South Africa," while prop, Fran Cotton, added an extra two inches to his neck size (already XXXL status) through "scrum after scrum after scrum in training".
There was a cost, metaphorical as much as literal. McGeechan had to suspend his mortgage. Others were forced to take leave of absence with no pay. The £2.50 daily allowance did not stretch that far albeit one player did confide that the squad-orchestrated selling of their quota of match-day tickets did contribute to his first family Austin Maxi on returning home. There were compensations, quite apart from the sense of sporting fulfilment to be derived from scaling such peaks. “There was as much Castle Lager booze and Rothmans fags as you could consume in every dressing-room,” reports one, while McGeechan recalls the touring party "being met at Bloemfontein airport by a stream of vintage cars that took us, two in each vehicle, all the way into town past packed crowds as if we were film stars". Extra-curricular safari flights in classic Dakotas to the Kruger Park were also on the schedule.
There are many reasons as to why the 1974 British and Irish Lions party in South Africa are in the history books as the most successful side ever, perhaps in any sport. P22 W21 D1 (the disputed fourth Test), a benchmark that takes some betterment and which is statistical Test evidence that this was the high-water mark for British and Irish rugby following their success in New Zealand three years earlier. First the All Blacks, then the Springboks, the equivalent of Muhammad Ali and Rocky Marciano being laid out flat on the canvas, champs dethroned by the knockout blows from the Lions.
There is no doubt that the essence of the tour is encapsulated in the ’99 one-in, all-in’ that indicates the togetherness of that group, an unbreakable spirit that was forged by the oratory and leadership of their captain, Willie John McBride.
‘Gentlemen, if you have any doubts about going, I want you to leave the room’
“Before we had even left the country, we were gathered in the Churchill Hotel just near Marble Arch and outside we could hear the anti-apartheid demonstrations in full flow,” recalls England’s Roger Uttley. “Willie spoke and you could hear a pin drop. ‘Gentlemen. If you have any doubts about going on this tour, I want you to be big enough to stand up now and leave the room. I have been to South Africa before and there is going to be a lot of intimidation, a lot of cheating. So if you’re not up for a fight, there’s the door.’ No one moved. I can still remember the silence and the hairs on the back of the neck rising.”
Willie John McBride, one of the greatest ever Lions, and 1974 tour captain
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Pride in physicality is deep-rooted in a race that defines itself on defence of the homeland, an obligation that is seen as a definition of their manhood. For 1974, read every successive Springbok generation right through to the World Cup triumph of Siya Kolisi’s side in Japan 20 months ago.
“South Africans take every opportunity to bully you,” said Cotton, later to be manager of the successful 1997 Lions tour to that country. “You can’t give them an inch. (Wales hooker) Bobby Windsor stood up at our first forwards meeting in South Africa, looked us all in the eye and asked: ‘Am I going to see your face or your back when it all starts?’”
The Churchill Hotel speech had set the tone and had a suitably theatrical affirmation in the aftermath of the series-clinching 26-9 victory in Port Elizabeth, when South Africa’s rugby supremo, Danie Craven, handed out ceremonial blazers in the Ostrich Hall to the six Springboks debutants, saying: “It hurts me to be giving you these because you have not earned them.”
From the Lions came the physical blows, from their own administrators came the wounding put-downs. It was not all about macho face-offs although that was the prime point of confrontation. The 1971 Lions stunned Kiwis with the individual brilliance of their Carwyn James-coached play, bound up in the George Best-like genius of fly-half Barry John. It is not completely wrong to depict the enforcers of the 1974 tour as hard-nosed Ying to that free-wheeling Yang but it is only right to record the piercing attacking skills of the likes of (the late) JJ Williams who turned the tide in that all-important third Test with a brace of quick-witted tries, an ace finisher that shredded defences all around the country as testified by his six-try haul in the 97-0 win over South West Districts. Who might gainsay either the sublime partnership of Gareth Edwards and Phil Bennett at half-back, productive and penetrating at every turn? 107 tries scored on the tour, only 13 conceded. It was the first series the Springboks had lost at home that century with the most points ever conceded. That is a ledger of account that brooks no argument.
Gareth Edwards passing at half-back on the tour
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There was a resilience in the ranks that was forged through that McBride call-to-arms with protestors outside and a foreign foe to encounter thousands of miles to the south. Politics provided a restless backdrop to the tour although there seemed to be more universal acclaim when the Lions arrived back at Heathrow following their three-month odyssey. How unusual for politicians to attach themselves to the coat-tails of glory.
Robben Island, Mandela, and a communities cheering the opponents
The Lions’ popularity was not confined to British and Irish cohorts. There is a wonderfully evocative photograph of the support for the Lions from the black and Cape Coloured communities as JJ Williams touches down in the corner of the Boet Erasmus Stadium in the history-making third Test, the fans in the fenced-in area of the ground erupting as the wing scored. Several hundred miles away on Robben Island it is said that Nelson Mandela had his ear tuned to radio reports of the Springboks’ downfall.
“It was completely their right to cheer for the opposing team,” said back-row forward, Morne du Plessis, who was to become one of the most revered of Springbok captains in the wake of that series, leading the team right through those years to the victorious 1980 campaign against Bill Beaumont’s Lions, later also to be manager to the 1995 World Cup-winning team. “We are a complex mix of cultures and dynamics with different shades of mankind and we have to live with that. It is what it was back then. It was completely understandable even if it didn’t seem palatable at the time not to be cheered on by our own people.”
There were no such fissures in the Lions camp despite the competitive desire of each of the 30 players to make the Test team. A mark of the calibre of the class of ’74 is the roll-call of those who did not play in any of the four tests – Wales flanker, Tommy David, Ireland hooker, Ken Kennedy (who doubled up as team doctor, a far-cry from the heavily-resourced back-room staff of these days), and England trio of prop, Mike Burton, flanker, Tony Neary and No 8 (the late) Andy Ripley who had come on that trip as the seemingly nailed-on Test starter after an impressive Five Nations championship. Instead it was Mervyn Davies who claimed the spot and kept it. Many years later I asked the seemingly laid-back, not-a-care-in-the-world Ripley how he felt about the selection decision, expecting some sort of even-handed reply. His eyes narrowed.
Welshman Mervyn Davies was preferred to Andy Ripley at No 8
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“I was beyond devastated then and I remain beyond devastated today,” said Ripley as competitive a beast that has ever set foot in a sporting arena, as his world veteran indoor rowing titles later in life were to illustrate. Ripley did at least put any down time to use, revealing that he once slipped out of camp to spend a night in Soweto with some locals he had encountered to experience the other side of South African life away from five-star hotels.
The competition for places kept everyone on their toes and standards high right from the first sessions based at the Three Fountains Hotel in the suitably industrial backdrop of mining town, Stilfontein, up on the veldt and miles from the bright lights of Johannesburg.
“My rival for the loosehead shirt, Ian (Mighty Mouse) McLauchlan told me in that first camp that he intended to feature in all 22 games,” said Fran Cotton. “It was a challenge to me, a clear sign that he had no intention of easing up at any point. I could play both sides, though, and an injury to Burto (Mike Burton), opened things up there. The Mouse’s attitude was in us all. (Coach) Syd Millar told us what he had in mind for us as a forward pack. Scrum. And scrum. And scrum. We’d do 30 to 40 live scrums, eight against eight, in every session. It was no holds barred with frequent punch-ups. The Mouse was asked by a South African journalist at the end of the tour as to who had been the best outfit he had scrummed against, expecting the answer to be Eastern Transvaal or one of the Springbok set-ups. Mouse had no hesitation in replying: ‘Our lads in training.’ It was the best rugby I was ever involved in, a real high-point that has not been matched.”
The internal rivalry was fierce but the camaraderie was genuine. They were all in it together despite occasional appearances to the contrary. Two days before the first Test in Cape Town the team was announced with Fergus Slattery chosen ahead of Neary. “It could have been a toss-up, so close were they in ability,” said scrum-half, Gareth Edwards. “There were some great players who did not make the team.”
Irishman Fergus Slattery (pictured) pipped Tony Neary to Test selection
‘We stood our ground in training. We stood our ground in matches’
Yet, there was still to be no quarter asked or given. At that Thursday session, a lineout was called to the rear. Within seconds, Neary and Slattery were scrapping on the floor.
“That’s just how it was,” said Burton. “We stood our ground in training. We stood our ground in matches.”
The Gloucester prop, no shrinking violet then (or since for that matter), admits to going on that tour with a feeling of dread.
“I just kept asking myself how we could ever hope to live up to the 1971 Lions?” said Burton. “I just couldn’t bear the thought of letting the side down. But I took great heart from being an original selection. I didn’t make the Test team but I knew I was in good company. No one on that trip ever complained. That was down to the brilliant man management of Syd and Willie John. People make fortunes these days from corporate books about building teams. Those two did it by instinct. It wasn’t big rabble-rousing stuff. Just a little word here and there. ‘Burto, you’ve got a job to do for us,’ Syd said to me once before sending me out to face another South African man-monster. You’d be scrumming in training and Syd would walk past. ‘Burto, feet.’ I had no idea what he was talking about but I’d shuffle a bit before he’d go over to watch the backs where I could hear him saying, ‘Alignment. Handling’ as if he, a forward himself, knew anything about such things. Then he would come back to the forwards where I’d gone back to my conventional positioning. ‘That’s better, Mike.’
“But, you see, he cared. And that made you care. It was a subtle thing. We all loved them and we would be sure to never let them down. And we had to protect each other. In the build-up to the first Test we played Eastern Transvaal, not exactly a bunch of choirboys. Gareth (Edwards) was a target and they copped him one early on round a lineout. That was my fault. The next lineout I left an even bigger gap at the front. Their boy couldn’t believe it and came steaming through. I put my arm out straight and he went round and round it like a bloomin’ Catherine Wheel. He didn’t try to come through on Gareth again.”
It is facile to think that all Lions touring parties stick together. They don’t or, at best, they try but get splintered by the concerted power of the opposition. The Lions played 12 Tests on three tours in the sixties against South Africa and New Zealand and lost all 12. They were to prove formative experiences for Millar and McBride.
1971 proved different, so did this trip. The results were clear evidence of their tight-knit collective, far from home with only one phone call per week allowed, the rest of the communication coming courtesy of letters sent to PO Box 2172 and picked up at various junctures. The players enjoyed each other’s company. Uttley remembers the team bus pulling up outside Loftus Versfeld for the second Test.
The team bus erupts into ‘Flower of Scotland’ and an anthem is born
“(Scotland wing) Billy Steele had got us singing Flower of Scotland and we hadn’t finished, so on and on we went with it until we were done,” said Uttley. “That got us in the mood.”
An anthem was born. The Lions had their share of good fortune in avoiding significant injuries. They used only 17 players in the four-Test series, Steele giving way to the irrepressible Andy Irvine for the final two Tests while lock, Gordon ‘Broon from Troon’ Brown, a star-turn on the trip, scoring eight tries in all, two of them crucial scores in the second and third Tests, missed the final Test. Brown also featured in one of the tour’s most bizarre, and curiously heart-warming moments, after landing a haymaker in the third Test on his opposite number, Johan de Bruyne, the Orange Free State second-row who had a glass eye which flew out as Brown’s punch landed. All 30 players, as well as referee, Cas de Bruyn, got down on their hands and knees in the mud and searched for the glass eye which was eventually located. Hostilities then resumed. The Scotsman died at a young age, 51, from cancer and so famous was the anecdote that De Bruyne presented Brown’s widow with a specially-commissioned trophy complete with glass eye.
Gordon Bornw, who sadly died at a young age, 51, from cancer
If the Lions were settled, the Springboks were not. They featured 33 players, a sign of the panic that the Lions induced in them. Only three South Africans played in all four Tests.
“I was dropped after the second Test and rightly so,” said Du Plessis. “I was all over the place, as were a few others. It was a lean period for us and we didn’t know who we were and where we were at. It’s not that we felt we ought to have been invincible at home, albeit we did pride ourselves on our record in South Africa. What did surprise us about the Lions was the fact that they out-muscled us. It was a huge wake-up call for our rugby.”
The opening game, against Western Transvaal, laid down a marker, with the Lions winning 59-13.
“I was given an immediate start and that, for me, as a relative international newcomer, was massive,” said McGeechan. “I have never forgotten the value of that experience and took it into my coaching to get new Lions blooded as soon as possible.”
Even the tried-and-tested troupers, such as Edwards, were twitchy about wanting to get their own show on the road to soothe any nerves.
“Of course, those of us who had been to New Zealand in 1971 had a confidence about us,” said Edwards. “But the flip side of that was that the expectations on you were higher. I’d been to South Africa in ’68, remember, and knew how those guys would do everything, anything, to defend their territory. But then I would look around our dressing-room. Barry (John) had retired but Phil (Bennett) was there and he was outstanding. Willie John, of course, the forward pack who paved the way for us, JJ and then, at the rear, JPR. Why wouldn’t you have confidence?”
There was a seven game lead-in to the first Test, time to bed down combinations, a crucial exercise. Given that the entire 2021 tour comprises only eight matches in total, you do wonder quite how and why we have allowed the Lions experience to be so undermined.
Adapting to the hard grounds as well as altitude is a formative part of the preparation. Or so the theory goes. The Lions arrived in Cape Town to teeming skies and a boggy Newlands, ideal for their heavy-duty operation, duly reflected in the 12-3 scoreline, all kicks, three penalty goals from Bennett and an Edwards drop-goal.
‘That backline was the best collective I’ve played with’
South Africa reacted with alarm and lack of any clarity. They made eight changes for the second Test in Pretoria and little good it did them. The Lions proved that they were far more than heavy-duty sluggers, scoring five tries through JJ Williams (2), Dick Milliken, Bennett, and Brown with Bennett adding a penalty and a conversion, McGeechan a dropped goal.
“That backline was the best collective I’ve played with,” said McGeechan. “We drilled and drilled, passed and passed, apologising if a pass was as much as an inch out.”
Sir Ian McGeechan (right) went on to coach the Lions in 1989, 1993, 1997, 2005 (assistant) and 2009
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And so to Port Elizabeth and what is known as the Battle of Boet Erasmus, which former Wales and Lions flanker, and no angel himself, Clem Thomas, described in a history of the tourists as “the most violent I have ever witnessed”.
The Lions won on every count.
“For 38 minutes in that first half we did nothing but defend, barely able to draw breath or even speak but one glance at your mate alongside was enough to know that you were all in it together,” said McGeechan. The Lions managed to lift the siege just before half-time, Brown diving over from a lineout to add salt to Springbok wounds. The game was up, the series was up, the 26-9 scoreline another damning indictment of South African rugby.
The final Test at Ellis Park was to end in controversy with the Lions denied what looked a try from Slattery at the death. There was no such thing as neutral officials in those days and referee Max Baise ruled against the Lions and blew for full-time with the score 13-13. Any sense of grievance by the Lions has to be balanced by this admission from Uttley.
“I didn’t, in fact, score a legitimate try myself as Springbok wing, Chris Pope, had touched the ball down before me,” confided Uttley. “I wish I had owned up years earlier and told Baise that when our paths crossed.”
Would we have thought even more of the Lions if they had had a perfect record? Probably not. They have still been acclaimed down the generations and rightly so.
“It was quite a harrowing experience at the time but looking back it is a memory to cherish in that those ’74 Lions were the greatest of teams to visit these shores,” said Du Plessis. “They gave us a drubbing. They were the best.”