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Willie John McBride – Pride of the Lions – Rugby Icon

Willie John McBride in action on the 1974 British Lions Tour to South Africa

An interview with the Ballymena-born rugby star Willie John who took part in a remarkable five tours and, with 17 Lion Tests, and remains the most caped player in the series. The Irish lock forward captained the last tour, during which the Lions tore South Africa apart, winning 21 of their 22 games.



Some years ago, thumbing through a pile of archives in Ballymena’s museum, Willie John McBride came across a photo of an impeccably dressed man standing beside an Irish swing-plough and two horses, dated 1920. He recognized the landscape, particularly the flax dams in the back of the shot, as the family farm at Moneyglass, near Toomebridge, close to the northwest shores of Lough Neagh. ‘When I was 15 years old, I was down at that same dam at 5 o’clock every morning, throwing the flax up onto the banks to dry.’ The man in the photo was Robert McBride, his grandfather. Willie John had never seen him before. [1]

William James McBride was born on the farm in 1940. His father had lately succeeded to the farm but, when Willie John was four years old, he ‘literally just dropped dead’. ‘He’d fallen off a horse and hurt his leg so they think it might have been a clot that got him. I always remember him with a stick.’

Willie John was four years old when his father ‘literally just dropped dead’, leaving his widow with four small children. ‘He’d fallen off a horse and hurt his leg so they think it might have been a clot that got him. I always remember him with a stick.’
Fortunately, his mother was a resilient soul. She took on the farm and assigned jobs to her children. ‘When school was done, we came home and went to work’, recalls Willie John. ‘Feeding the pigs, collecting eggs, cutting turf. We’d milk the cows before we went to school. It was all horses. No machinery.’[2]

‘You put all the milk in the churn and took the churns to the end of the lane and a lorry would pick them up and take them away’. As well as the dairy cattle, they had a half dozen sows and sixty pigs. ‘We killed the pigs at home’, he says. ‘Knock them out with a mallet, then cut their throats. You couldn’t do that nowadays. Not at all. You have to go to abattoirs.’ His mother also kept 300 chickens and every Wednesday, a van would arrive to take the eggs away and deliver groceries. ‘It was a simple way of life’.

‘Aye, different times but it did us not harm at all. That’s how you build strong men. Not in a gymnasium.’

‘I was never in a gym in my life’, growls the five-time Lions champion and former Irish captain. ‘But I guarantee that I was stronger than any of the guys playing ruby today. We didn’t have substitutes in my day. If you were hurt, you didn’t let on because if you came off, you only left fourteen men on. Oh yes, we could take punishment. There is no question in my mind that we are tougher than they are now’.[3]

Photo: James Fennell (2010)

The press loved Willie John. No surname required. The pipe-smoking, gentle giant from the land of Finn MacCool. The bitter-swilling lock forward who made buildings shake and hotel managers tremble with the rumble of his laugh. He was one of the most dominant rugby players in the world throughout the 1960s and 1970s. He played for Ireland 63 times, 12 as captain, including historic wins against both the Springboks and New Zealand. And yet he only scored one try for the country and that was in his last season.

He was perhaps as well known for his contribution to the Lions tours, taking part in a remarkable five tours and, with 17 Lion Tests, became the most caped player in the series.[4] He captained the last tour, during which the Lions tore South Africa apart, winning 21 of their 22 games. It was a controversial tour from the start, not least because the Irish skipper decided the best way to tackle the aggressive antics of the South African players would be to ‘get our retaliation in first’. That resulted in the now legendary ‘99’ call where, whenever Willie John yelled out that magic number, every Lion on the pitch began to wallop their nearest rivals as frequently as possible for 30 seconds.[5] It wasn’t pretty but it stemmed the Springboks violence and the Lions returned home bronzed and triumphant to be greeted by Welsh choirs, champagne breakfasts and a gift of a lion cub from Lord Bath. [6]

To the anti-apartheid activists who reckoned the Lions should never have gone to South Africa in the first place, Willie John replied, ‘I’m a rugby player not a politician’. He pointed out that rugby had been one of the most uniting factors in troubled Ireland. But, back then, his opinions earned him a place on a United Nations blacklist.

‘They were great days’, he says. ‘I really enjoyed it – great fun, great crack, great guys.’ He was mowing the lawn when we arrived and itching to get stuck into some hedge cutting. ‘I love working with the soil’, he says. ‘It’s in my bones’. At the back of his home in Ballyclare lies a lush and well-kept garden; springy lawns, admirable borders, feisty copper beeches and sturdy saplings. Free-range chickens scamper anxiously beneath a knoll upon which a pair of donkeys drolly munch upon the grasses. A granddaughter bounces skywards on a nearby trampoline. Willie John walks through his garden, proudly pointing out his bumper crop of spinach and sweetcorn, counselling us as to the best way to defeat the carrot fly.[7]

Willie John was the only one of the McBrides to pursue sport. His two brothers still farm in Antrim while his sister spent more than 40 years in the Skin Department of the Royal Hospital in Belfast.[8]

While at Ballymena Academy, he became a passionate pole vaulter and, determined to beat an arch-rival, he won the Ulster Schools Pole Vaulting championship with a leap of 10 foot 9. Sean Kyle, who also coached him as a shot putter and disc thrower, later stated that Willie John ‘could have reached Great Britain standard in both those events but he was wooed away to rugby football’.

At the age of 17, Willie John began to play the sport that made him a household name throughout the rugby-playing world. He started out as lock forward for his school 1st XV, and then signed up with Ballymena R.F.C.

In 1962, he was selected to play his first Test for Ireland against England at Twickenham. ‘I got the loan of a jersey and a pair of green Irish socks from the Irish Rugby Union. I was to use the same one for every game I played. If it was ripped or torn, it was over to me to patch it up. And if, at the end of the season, I’d played the four games, they’d give it to me.’[9]

The Ulster forward proved to be as slippery as a Toomebridge eel, as explosive as the diatomite they mined in the hills around his family farm.[10] That summer, the 22 year old headed on the first of his five Lions tours. Destination: South Africa.

By the time he returned from the tour, the young man’s eyes had been opened. ‘One of the great things about sport is that it gets you around. Africa blew me away. There is a magic about it that you just won’t find anywhere else. It gave me a vision of other things that were interesting and important. I always thought I’d be a farmer. But I found farming to be a very close world. You weren’t interested in what happened 10 miles up the road. Now, I’m happy to listen to people talk about cattle and sheep, but I don’t think I could have handled that.’

And so he, instead of farming, the big man from Toomebridge focused on his rugby career and joined the Northern Bank, with whom he stayed for 37 years. In 1971, the bank transferred him from their Ballymoney-Coleraine branch to their head office on Royal Avenue in Belfast. ‘That was a bit of a shock’, he says, coming as it did on the eve of the Troubles.

As well as his five Lions tours, Willie John played for Ireland in fourteen successive Five Nations championships. In 1974, Ireland won it for the first time in 23 years with Willie John at the helm. A few weeks later, he had just exited Belfast’s Northern Bank and rounded a corner when a 500lb bomb blew the bank apart. Had he stopped to tie a shoelace, the Lions would have been without a captain for their tour to South Africa that summer.
He played his last game for Ireland in 1975 and moved into management, making his way up through the ranks from Ballymena to Ulster to Ireland to manage the Lions themselves.[11]

‘Don’t ask me what I do but I never have a minute!’ says Willie John, who was 70 years old at the time of our meeting. ‘I’m busier now than I’ve ever been. I work with charities. Grandchildren. I’m a Freeman of the borough and I chair a sports award committee in the council. I’m not political in any shape or form. Presenting prizes. I do a bit of speaking’

‘I still believe Ireland is the best little corner of the world’, he says. ‘We have a quality of life that I can’t see anywhere else. There are changes of course. The days when we’d go into pubs and talk to the characters behind the bar and have a bit of crack, that’s all gone. But I guess it’s the same as rugby. It all changes.’ [12]




Willy John McBride – Ancestors on 1911 census.

[1] WJ was in the marketing department of the bank at the time and had gone to the museum to find some old photos for his farming leaflets. He scanned and enlarged the photo, and now has it framed on his living room wall. ‘You know, it would have taken him a week to plough that field with those two horses’, he says, shaking his head.

[2] ‘They think it may have been a clot in his leg that got him, or it could have been heart trouble. They didn’t have post mortems then. He literally just dropped dead’. His mother’s maiden name was Patterson. She was from the same part of the world. Her own father had died of TB when she was four, so she had been raised by aunts and uncles. Some of her family ended up in the American Mid-West. A man called Patterson sent money back to the family. ‘Weren’t they brave men in those days?’
‘My first memories of the wireless, the old battery one that you topped up with distilled water and all this carry on. You’d switch it on and hear ‘This is London’. It was always the war reports.’

[3] ‘I still chop my own wood, cut my own grass, cut my own hedges … but these guys today who build up their muscles and take their supplements and walk around like this … they go out on the rugby pitch and bang, someone hits them and they’re off.’ He still meets his old team-mates from time to time. ‘We meet up. Not everyone. There’s certain guys you gel with right through from club to Ulster to Irish to Lions. One of the guys just got a new hip so I rang him for a catch up.’

[4] In 1966, they took on New Zealand and Australia. Two years later, he went with Tommy Kiernan’s Lions to South Africa.

In 1971, he was pack leader when the Lions scored a Test series win over New Zealand. The big lock forward was selected to play for the ‘Roaring Lions’ in their victorious 1971 tour of New Zealand. As he set off on his fourth Lions tour, some wondered whether ‘the one and only Willie John McBride’ was ‘over the hill’. As pack leader, he helped the Lions to a Test series win over New Zealand; their first and last series win over New Zealand.

At this time, no British forward had won more caps than McBride and, with four Lions tours under his belt, he was held in highest esteem across the Northern Hemisphere. When 30-year-old also captained his side to a 39-6 victory over Manawatu-Horowhenua, his team members carried him shoulder high from the field.

[5] Before they left for South Africa that summer, many wondered whether Willie John could last the pace ‘on the fast, firm going of the high veldt’. It turned out to be their most successful and controversial tour to date as the Lions rampaged to win 21 of their 22 tour matches, including a 3-0 defeat of the Springboks. But the 1974 Lions campaign was a brutal affair. Put simply, the Springboks were turning the screw through sheer aggression, so that Willie John decided their only option was to call ‘99’. ‘You know you’re up against it when the ref shouts ‘our ball’ at the put-in to the scrum’, he laughed afterwards.

Once the call was made, ‘ we are all in it together – and I mean all. You belt the guy nearest to you as hard as you can’, wrote McBride later. In the absence of video refs or sideline officials, the match referee was invariably left confounded by who had started the rather unseemly brawls now underway on the pitch. This came to extremes when a one-eyed player for the Orange Free State began dominating the line out prompting Willie John to order one of his team to ‘close his other eye’ with a surreptitious punch. As this was the time of apartheid, many people in Europe empathised with the Lions.

They drew the 22nd and secured their first (and only?) series victory in South Africa, 3-0. No touring side, including the All Blacks, had ever beaten the Springboks at home. For efficiency and consistency, there had never been a Lions team like it. And by night they drank poteen.

[6] Lord Bath sent the lion cub down from Longleat as a present – it was returned to sender after it had chewed several pairs of trousers to pieces. ‘I think it would be very sad if each individual, no matter who he is employed by, hasn’t the right to make up his own mind’.

[7] He shows us a chestnut tree which he planted in a bucket 35 years ago which is where I got my conker; a branch had fallen off it when we arrived. To keep carrot-fly at bay, he suggests you creosote one side of a plank of wood and place it, face out, alongside the carrot drill. That said, Fennell said he has planted a carrot-fly resistant breed of carrots.

[8] His second brother runs the home farm. ‘My life has been so different to my family. I have two brothers and a sister that are alive. We don’t meet. The brothers are farmers and their sons are farmers. My sister is 80 and she was a Sister at the skin department at the Royal in Belfast for 40 years or more. She lived through a whole lot. I see her very infrequently. My brothers really don’t understand my life. My elder brother is 79. His son runs the farm now. He had never have been out of Ireland in his life. He would have been in the Republic a few times. He went to see me play once. As did my other brother. They don’t understand. It’s just not their world. I went to see him when I got back from the 2009 Lions Tour. I said I was away, that I had been to South Africa for a couple of weeks to watch the Lions play. And he looked at me and said: ‘Why do you go there? Do you not like where you live?’ I really don’t have any answer to that. I don’t upset that world of theirs. I’m happy to listen to them talk about cattle and sheep. It doesn’t worry me. It’s just a very different world.”

[9] ‘I wish I had the money it cost me to play rugby’, he laughed. ‘A lot of people talk about this big word ‘memorabilia’. Well, I don’t have memorabilia. You got one pair of socks, green Irish socks. If you lost them or tore them or gave them away, the second pair was 17 and sixpence. That was a lot of money then! It was a different world. I remember my first free pair of boots. Boots became very expensive. My first wage in a bank in 1959 was £20 a month. So a pair of boots was a lot of your wages. God’s sake. But anyway, I suppose you could call it sponsorship. Adidas approached the Irish Rugby Union and said we’d like to supply the Irish team with boots. And the IRU said no, no, no, we don’t do that. We can’t accept gifts like that. Boots then were forty or fifty quid. A hell of a lot of money. There was a lot of hullabaloo about this. But they got over it when the Unions said okay, every player pay £1 and then we can’t say we got a gift. It was pathetic really.

[10] The hills around the farm were mined for their diatomite, a soft sedimentary rock used for such things as cat litter, thermal insulation, insecticide and dynamite.

[11] In 1975 as his international career was ending he played his last home game for Ireland at Lansdowne Road. The game was against France and near the end of the match, he scored his first ever Test try for Ireland. His last international game was against Wales on Saturday 15 March 1975. He continued to play for his club and province and came close to being recalled by Ireland in 1977. In 1983 he was appointed coach to the Irish rugby team (who had won the Triple Crown in 1982) but the team lost all four games and he was dismissed after one season. The 1982 Lions campaign to New Zealand, with Ciaran Fitzgerald as captain, was also something of a disaster, culminating in a 4-0 defeat

‘Rugby was very much part of my life’, he says. ‘Penny [Marshall, his wife, who was raised in Malahide] was very good and understanding because the kids were young at that stage. I’m one of those people who, you know, you do something and when you stop, that’s it. I’m not involve in rugby anymore. I don’t understand it anymore. The whole game is different and there’s a lot of stuff I don’t like. It’s money, money, money. Money spoils a lot of stuff.’

[12] That said, he has no intention of moving anywhere than his home in Ballyclare, which he built when the bank transferred him to nearby Balymena. ‘I just wanted that privacy and I was lucky enough to get it and I was also half way to Ballymena. I was then transferred to Ballymena, back to head office and then back to Ballymena.’ His house in Ballylcare was ideally placed between Belfast and Ballymena, and also had good schools locally. The area has been significantly built up since 2000, including a home for his son, a civil engineer who is married and lives nearby. ‘After all that he done he settled down and comes and living beside me. He was in England and Botswana and everywhere and he came back and thought no, I want to live here. But a better story than that. I wasn’t at boarding school, but my three sons – one was an accountant, one was a civil engineer and one was a lawyer in London – the one in London (Paul) took a huge pay cut to come home and is now head of Tughan’s Solicitors in Belfast where Mike Gibson also works.
‘I smoked a pipe for 30 years. You sort of puff a pipe. Its more of a peaceful smoke than a cigarette. I gave up five years ago. I still miss it but you couldn’t go to someone’s house and light a pipe. It was easier to give up’.
He has a huge stuffed doll of Willy John, given to him when he got his 50th cap. Photos of near scores and other snaps.