High praise from the Lion king

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The Independent Online
Had Willie-John McBride been born an Afrikaner, all the large cities in South Africa and most of the small towns too, would boast a statue of him. Unfortunately for the Springboks, McBride was raised in Ballymena not Bloemfontein, so they missed out on one of the hardest second- row forwards and most inspirational leaders of all time.

But in South Africa, they know a diamond when they see one, and ever since McBride captained the Lions on their unforgettable and undefeated tour here in 1974, they talk of McBride with awe-struck regard. On the high veld, when they speak of great forwards, unless they have worn the coveted gold and green Springbok jersey, only McBride and New Zealand's Colin Meads get a mention. McBride's finger-wagging, never take a backward step photograph from 1974 adorns clubhouses the length and breadth of the land.

Here to play some golf and speak at a daunting schedule of dinners on what has been turned into something resembling a papal visit, McBride has taken a keen interest in the rugby, and has been delighted with what he has seen. "I think these Lions have done fabulously well, and been a credit to themselves and to British and Irish rugby," he said. "They have won the series and, in the process, shaken up the Springboks. I think South African rugby had become a little complacent, and the first two Test defeats were a big jolt.

"Quite apart from those victories, what has pleased me so much is the welcome the Lions have received. This tour has proved beyond question that the Lions are still a huge attraction. They are unique. The Lions represent the absolute best of the Four Home Nations rugby and they must continue to tour South Africa, New Zealand and Australia, in the way they have for more than a century."

McBride then turned his attention to the inevitable comparisons being made between his 1974 party and the present Lions. "It is almost impossible to compare the two tours," said the man who made 17 Test appearances for the Lions between 1962 and 1974. "We had no doctor or physiotherapist. Alun Thomas was the manager, Syd Millar the coach and between the three of us we ran the show. Now it is a professional game and Martin Johnson can all on a management team of a dozen.

"But in a playing sense, we had a pack that was the equal of, and at most times better than, the Springbok forwards. And we had some pretty good backs to go with them. They were also the fittest Lions I ever played with.

"I have to say that I had one or two small doubts about some of our forwards on this tour, but I should have known better.

"In Fran Cotton and Ian McGeechan the Lions have the benefit of two thorough men who have been here, seen it and who know how demanding Lions rugby can be. They have done their homework well.

"It has also helped that the Springboks kept most of their best players out of the provincial games. Consequently, South Africa never got the feel of the Lions' strengths and weaknesses before the Cape Town Test. This enabled McGeechan to build confidence, work at bonding the squad into an effective unit, and create essential team spirit."

No one in their right mind would argue with McBride that these elements have been other than beneficial to the 1997 Lions. Or that character, the other vital ingredient in a Lions tour, has been missing.

"When Robert Howley was injured, the Lions put the disappointment behind them and looked to the other scrum-halves. Look how well Matt Dawson has done. Look, too, at the other guys like Tom Smith, John Bentley and Paul Wallace, who have forced their way into the Test team," McBride said with a smile. "Touring is character-building. That's what Lions rugby is all about."