Willie John McBride helped shake British & Irish rugby out of its lethargy, paving the way for Lions glory in the Seventies. The Irish second-row is one of the all-time greats
Major teams: Ballymena
Test span: 1962-75
Ireland caps: 63 (63 starts)
Lions caps: 17 (17 starts)
Test points: 7 (2T)
Rugby’s Greatest: Willie John McBride
Not the least of Willie John McBride’s battery of achievements is that he didn’t even play rugby until 17 – yet within five years was a fully-fledged Ireland and Lions international.
That bare fact tells you much about the no-nonsense Ulsterman who was to play more Lions Tests (17) and make more Lions appearances (70) than any other man, as well as go on a joint-record five Lions tours with Mike Gibson.
McBride’s childhood laid the foundation of his stellar career, for on the family farm he acquired a work ethic and sense of unity that transferred to his rugby. Losing his dad at just four, McBride and his three brothers worked tirelessly – he once cut and stacked the corn through the night prior to undertaking his daily three-mile walk to school.
Initially McBride was a beanpole No 8 but he filled out to become a fearsome second-row with no respect for reputations. On his third Test appearance, in France, he played with a broken leg for 30 minutes. And at 23, irritated by being pushed out of the lineout against the All Blacks, he belted the miscreant – Colin Meads.
McBride was a warrior, never willing to take a backward step. Having scored the only try of the 1968 Lions series in South Africa, he finally turned the tables on the southern hemisphere by helping the 1971 Lions win 2-1 in New Zealand.
Appointed Ireland captain in 1973, McBride was chosen to lead the 1974 Lions at the age of 34. His inspirational speeches and diplomatic skills were to the fore as the tourists went unbeaten and won the series 3-0. His implementation of the famed ‘99’ call, to quash opposition thuggery at source through ‘all-in’ retaliation, has passed into legend.
Fellow Lion Andy Ripley said: “Why did we all love Willie so much? Because he unreservedly loved all 30 of us. He made us feel like we’d just won the pools.”
After the third Test that clinched the series, McBride made the Test team walk over to the dirt-trackers in the stand and applaud them.
A banker all his working life, McBride played club rugby for Ballymena across four decades and later coached Ballymena, Ulster and Ireland, as well as managing the 1983 Lions.
In 2004 Willie John McBride was named Rugby Personality of the Century by Rugby World.
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