Willie John McBride: 'to win in South Africa is truly special'

The greatest Lion of all time knows what it takes to win a series in South Africa, and is confident the class of 2009 have what it takes to do it again
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When it comes to British and Irish Lions tours, Willie John McBride is one of those men who can proudly say: "Been there and done that." The towering Irish lock was a dominant force, a demanding yet inspirational captain and arguably the greatest ever Lion.

His role in leading the tourists to a series victory and undefeated tour of South Africa in 1974 was key to what remains one of the biggest success stories in the history of northern hemisphere rugby.

Having experienced the physical nature of South African rugby first hand, McBride expects another battle that will not be for the faint-hearted this summer.

"They are world champions and we mustn't forget that," begins the man who represented the Lions on a record five tours, playing in 17 Tests. "They have a huge pack and a very strong pack and we must pick men who can take them on and not get bullied around the field. We need to have the spine of a team that will not be intimidated in any way."

McBride and his Lions contemporaries were intent on not getting bullied in 1974. In fact, they knew what to expect from the Springboks the moment they landed in South Africa and formed a plan to negate the bullying tactics of their hosts.

The Lions came up with the infamous '99' call, which meant that if one team-mate found himself in trouble, the rest would pile in and get involved in any fights and scuffles that broke out. There was method behind what seemed like madness as the Lions felt if all 15 players threw themselves into the melee, there was no way the referee was going to send all of them off.

"Nobody was sent off in those days," McBride insists. "There were no yellow cards, no television match officials or interfering touch judges - we had to sort ourselves out and it wasn't a game where bullies survived. If there were bullies on the field they were dealt with very quickly.

"We would have the odd thug in a provincial game try to take out one of our key players like Gareth Edwards or Phil Bennett and my attitude was, 'We're not going to have this.' And if this happened we'd sort it out right away and get back to playing rugby.

"It only happened about three times and then the South Africans realised you don't mess around with these guys so it's not worth getting mixed up with them."

One Lion who relished the physical nature of that South African tour - during which the visitors recorded three Test wins, one draw and 18 tour victories against provincial sides - was cast-iron Welsh full-back J.P.R Williams.

"J.P.R was a bit different," McBride laughs. "I think he would have liked to have played in the forwards on that tour. He was a winner and he loved the hard stuff. When the '99' call was discussed by our players, J.P.R wanted to know if he could sort out three or four of them in one go."

While he is content to re-visit that legendary Lions tour of 1974, McBride is also keen to discuss the upcoming battles that will take place in South Africa this summer. He may turn 69 in June and look every inch the doting grandfather, but McBride remains fiercely committed to the Lions' cause and will be willing Ian McGeechan's men to do well in the coming months.

McBride believes the first thing the players selected by McGeechan must do is realise they are part of an elite group and will pull on a famous red jersey that is rich in rugby history.

"It's really a special thing and it doesn't happen anywhere else in the world where four countries come together," insists the winner of 63 Ireland caps. "To be considered one of the best players in those four countries, my God if that's not special, what is?

"To have that cream above our own national game is a special thing and it's revered in South Africa, New Zealand and Australia.

"When you look at Lions rugby, there are not a great number of players who have played in Tests, so it is a special thing to be a Test player and it is to be appreciated."

As you would expect, McBride's first thoughts turn to forward play, yet he also feels the Lions have exciting threats who can score from anywhere on the pitch.

"We must have strong forwards so I think (Ireland lock) Paul O'Connell will be one of our key players," McBride explains. "There are not many better forwards around than him.

"I also think we have some very exciting backs. Shane Williams is very exciting to watch and Brian O'Driscoll is still a world class talent. There are other guys who are coming through so we have some good players among the backs.

"The one thing that worries me most of all is the front row. I'm searching to find prop forwards and I don't know where we're going to get them from. But it is important we find guys who can do a job there."

While McBride doesn't expect the British and Irish Lions to be intimidated in any way when they kick off their tour against a Highveld XV on Saturday, May 30, McBride does expect the leading talent from the four home nations to be severely tested throughout the summer. And that means they must make the most of their time together before the first Test in Durban on June 20.

"These Lions won't have the same amount of preparation time as we had in 1974," he explains. "But these professional players are used to being away from home - so it's just a matter of getting their attitude right.

"I'm delighted with the management team in place with Gerald Davies and Ian McGeechan. They are both men I played with and they know what it's all about and players will react to their special leadership qualities.

"But make no mistake, the challenge presented by South Africa will be massive. They always play to win and they have great pride and attitude is never a problem for them. We have to really try to rock them."

Despite opposition featuring world class talent in the form of Schalk Burger, Bryan Habana, Victor Matfield, Bakkies Botha and Pierre Spies, McBride is adamant the 2009 Lions can emerge victorious and emulate the achievements of their predecessors from 1974 and 1997.

"We have to win it," he remarks. "We have the talent to win this Test series - it's just a matter of pulling everything together. And to win in South Africa is truly special. I think it develops a man - we had a lot of young men who came back from our 1974 trip as much better people."