JPR Williams remembers the call of 99
It has gone down in Lions folklore - the infamous battle cry that saw the 1974 tourists fight fire with fire against a team hellbent on physical intimidation, as Welsh great JPR Williams remembers
Friday 15 May 2009
Among the multitude of soundbites on the deeds of the British and Irish Lions, the great JPR Williams needed just one word to describe the victorious All Black-defeating class of 1971: "resilient".
When asked for one word to sum up their 1974 counterparts, Williams had no hesitation in firing back: "aggressive".
It's a word that seems to fit the bill perfectly, encapsulating a tour that has since gone down in Lions history, as the men from Britain and Ireland stood tall with the Springboks, fighting fire with fire.
This was the tour of 'the Invincibles', Willie John McBride's last Lions hurrah, Fergus Slattery's try that wasn't and a certain '99' call that has since down in rugby folklore.
"I don't think there's ever been a team playing in South Africa where they've been physically dominant," says Williams. "The South Africans, still, are very much a macho rugby-playing nation and we actually out-scrummaged them, the forwards were all over them and at the time the South Africans couldn't take that. But if you are in South Africa and you talk of the 74 Lions, we are absolutely revered over there, because we took them on at their own game and we beat them at it."
It will be the job of those that follow in 2009 to emulate the feats of those that went before them in 1974 and again in 1997 and win a Test Series in South Africa. Like their 1997 predecessors, the latest crop to pull on that coveted red jersey will be facing the reigning world champions.
However, it was the crop of 74 that paved the way, by not just beating the Springboks, but by beating them at their own game. And in doing so, establishing a legacy that still thrives today. "The esteem of the 74 Lions in South Africa is absolutely huge, having been back there a few times. And when you consider that we actually beat them comfortably and gave them a good hammering, they revere us," says Williams.
Much has been made of the '99' call on that tour. Williams is adamant that it was a crucial component in the team's success in South Africa.
"I think it was a major factor; Willie John McBride was on his fifth Lions tour and if you think about it, that's almost two years of your life on tour with the Lions. He'd been to South Africa before and played in good sides who were always on the losing end because of the physicality of the South Africans," recalls Williams.
"Willie John was a senior figure and he said, 'look, I've been out here twice before, we've played pretty well but we've been intimidated and we're going to have none of that. If anybody gets into trouble, you all get involved wherever you are and you all hit the nearest South African to you, the referee can't send off the whole team' and that was what Willie John said to us."
With their new '99' call in their armoury, the Lions headed to South Africa where, over the next three and a half months, they would earn the respect of their hosts. However, as Williams is keen to point out, the '99' call was used far more sparingly than legend might have it.
The Lions set their stall out early not to be intimidated, and Port Elizabeth, during the Lions' clash with Eastern Province would witness the call's first use. It would not be deemed necessary to call upon it again until the Third Test.
After edging an opening Test played in atrocious conditions in Cape Town, thanks to Phil Bennett and a Gareth Edwards drop goal, the Lions moved on to Pretoria where JJ Williams ran in two tries in a comprehensive 28-9 win. The South Africans were in disarray, and hitting the panic button, selected a No.8 at scrum-half. It was here, in Port Elizabeth once again, that the 99 call would come to prominence.
"We had the 99 call because we were under a lot of threat. The first-half we were hardly out of our half, and I think we kicked the ball down, had a lineout on their line and Gordon Brown scored a try, and we were in the lead," says Williams,
"It was the first-half and we were under a lot of pressure, and I'm not particularly proud of it now, but I remember sprinting about 40 yards to hit their biggest guy in the second row, Johnnes van Heerden. As I went towards him, there were two players running the other way, Phil Bennett and Andy Irvine. At least I'd picked on the biggest guy.
"I met him on the train about three or four years ago when South Africa were playing Wales and he was coming down to present the jerseys to the South Africans, and he paid me a great compliment, he said it was the best punch he'd ever had in his life."
Only a controversially disallowed Fergus Slattery try in the fourth Test prevented the Lions from returning home with a 100 per cent record. However, for Williams, after three and a half months on the road, there is no lingering sense of injustice. The tour's main objective, to win the series, had been emphatically achieved.
"The amazing thing was that the South Africans were so elated that they'd drawn the fourth Test, and we couldn't really understand that," says Williams.
"I actually made the break and gave him [Slattery] the ball and he was over the line, took a long time putting the ball down and the referee blew up before he touched it down. Having said that, we had a rather dubious try through Roger Uttley earlier on in the game, so I think it was a fair result. But the Slattery try was definitely a try."
Williams will be back in South Africa this summer watching with keen interest as former Lions team-mates Ian McGeechan and Gerald Davies look to steer the
Lions to a third series win over the Springboks. And with the experience of two Lions tours under his belt, Williams believes that the discarding of nationalities is essential if the players are to gel together, under the Lions banner.
"I was misquoted in 2005, that 'the Lions should sleep together' but they should share rooms, and there should not be anyone from the same country sharing rooms with each other. I think that's very important and I think that's already been implemented for this tour," says Williams.
"You've got to get rid of all nationalities and be united as a British Lions team. It's much harder to do on a shorter tour, but when I went to New Zealand I shared a room with David Duckham and John Pullen, the two Englishmen.
"And then in South Africa I shared with Billy Steel who is a Scot, so I never shared a room with a Welsh player and I think that's very important."
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