CHALLENGE: The Boks beat the Lions 2-1 in 2009
CHALLENGE: The Boks beat the Lions 2-1 in 2009

1974: The ‘Invincible’ Lions annihilate the Boks

By mark keohane Time of article published Jan 18, 2020

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They only come to South Africa every 12 years, but there has never been a finer British & Irish Lions squad than Willie-John McBride’s 1974 tourists.

The British & Irish Lions will play three Tests and eight matches in South Africa in 2021, but to appreciate everything about the mystique of the visitors is to go back in time and revisit the brilliance of the 1974 tourists.

They were dubbed the "Invincibles" after winning 21 out of 22 matches and drawing the fourth and final Test against the Springboks. It was a controversial end to the tour because the visitors were denied a 4-0 Test series win through a controversial refereeing decision.

The late Doc Danie Craven anointed the 1974 squad as the finest to ever tour South Africa and for many students of the game and rugby historians this squad ranked as among the greatest ever because their feats would never be matched again.

Professional rugby’s schedules don’t allow for a team to be on tour for three months and to play 22 matches. A traditional tour these days doesn’t last more than a month and mostly is confined to four Test matches.

The Lions, with eight matches in 2021, remain the only squad that still tours beyond the one month and four-Test window, and one can only be awed by what the tourists had to endure, in terms of opposition and travel in 1974, which included matches against South West Africa and Rhodesia.

The Lions in 1974 were also famous for the infamous ’99’ call, in which the entire team united to fight the moment a South African player threw a punch. These tourists refused to back down from any South African physicality. Many teams in history had been intimidated by South Africa’s hard fields and the even harder punches thrown by the hosts. Few teams, pre-international isolation, succeeded in South Africa. The 1974 Lions were the exception.

The core of the squad had created their own bit of history in 1971 when beating the All Blacks in a Test series in New Zealand, so the South African public knew the quality of the players on arrival in 1974, but it is doubtful anyone fully appreciated just how good they were.

Ireland’s McBride led through deed as much as word and the Welsh backline wizards JPR and JJ Williams, Mervyn Davies, Phil Bennett and Gareth Edwards tortured the South African opposition, be it provinces or the Springboks.

The South African public had never experienced the Boks to take such a beating on home soil and they had also not known a visiting team to so emphatically deal with the provincial threat.

McBride, on the squad’s first get together, is quoted as having delivered the following speech: "I know there are pressures on you, but if you have any doubts, I would ask you turn around and look behind you. Gentlemen, if you have any doubts about going on this tour, I want you to be big enough to stand up now and leave this room because you are no use to me, and you are no use to this team. There will be no stain on your character, no accusations if you do so, but you must be honest and committed. I’ve been to South Africa before and there is going to be a lot of physical intimidation and cheating. So, if you are not up for a fight, there’s the door."

Not one player left and the 34-year-old McBride declared he had a squad that would deliver a devastating blow to the South African rugby psyche.

It wasn’t just one blow, but a series of blows, match after match, as the Lions tore apart every South African team.

The Test series was sealed in the third Test played at the Boet Erasmus Stadium in Port Elizabeth. The series triumph was the Lions' first in South African since 1910 and the match, outside of the significance of the result, would be remembered as one of the most violent and brutal in the history of two teams. Lions and Welsh fullback JPR Williams, running half the length of the field to land a blow to the giant Springbok lock Moaner van Heerden, is among Lions rugby folklore of the 1974 tour.

Williams, a brilliant fullback, didn’t stand back an inch in the physical confrontation. Quite the opposite, he ran 50 metres to take on one of South Africa’s biggest men.

Another of the legendary tales from that third Test is the Lions hard man Gordon Brown punching Springbok Johan de Bruyn so hard that his glass eye flew out and landed in the mud.

The late Brown’s recollection was such: "So there we are, 30 players, plus the ref, on our hands and knees scrabbling about in the mire looking for this glass eye. Eventually someone yells 'Eureka’, whereupon De Bruyn grabs it and plonks it straight back in the gaping hole in his face."

De Bruyn, shortly after Brown’s death at just 53 years of age, presented his widow with the glass eye in a specially made trophy.

These Lions players were tough but they were also skilled. You didn’t simply arrive in South Africa in the 1970s and roll the Springboks with physicality. You also had to have the classiest players who knew how to make the ball work through the hands.

The Lions of 1974 were the complete package. They hammered the Springboks in the first three Tests and only eased off in the 13-all draw in the final Test.

Free State, beaten 11-9, were the only provincial team to come within a score of them.

The Lions were a squad made up of teachers, a doctor, a steelworker, a lawyer, a banker, several farmers and a mixture of private school and working-class men. The numbers they tallied on the tour have never been matched. They scored 107 tries and conceded just 13. Substitutes could only be introduced if a player left the field on a doctor’s insistence and the Invincibles of 1974 used just 16 players in four Tests.

Sir Ian McGeechan, a player in 1974 and a coach in the winning 1997 Lions series in South Africa, recalled how different life as a rugby player on tour was back in 1974.

"We went on tour with 30 players and a manager and a coach. When we went into a place, we would find a local doctor and a local physio and we would have to go in the waiting rooms and queue if we wanted treatments."

The Lions leadership, to build team spirit among players from four different nations, ensured the players share a room with someone from a different country.

They played hard, drank hard, partied hard and punched hard.

"Nobody ever broke ranks," says 1974 tourist Mike Burton. "There was a different culture. It was about honour and affection."

@mark_keohane


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