Lions legend: Syd Millar

Not even the great Willie John McBride can match his Ballymena clubmate Syd Millar's record of involvement with the Lions - three tours as a player, one as a series winning coach and another as a manager. [more]

Lions legend: Syd Millar

Not even the great Willie John McBride can match his Ballymena clubmate Syd Millar’s record of involvement with the Lions – three tours as a player, one as a series winning coach and another as a manager.

On top of that he was also a member of the Lions committee in 1993 and 1997, a selector in 1977 and chairman at the time of the 2001 tour to Australia.

It all adds up to and amazing nine tours over six decades and, having completed his term as chairman of the IRB, he became a Trustee of the Lions Trust charity.

Millar’s longevity should come as no surprise: his Ireland career ran from 1958 to 1970 and, at 33, he showed the determination to battle back from three years out of the selectors’ favour to win the final 14 of his 37 Ireland caps and make his third tour as a Lion.

The 16-stone front-rower started out as a stand-off and maintained those handling skills as a dangerous force in the loose. A tighthead prop by preference, he was also sufficiently versatile to pack down at loose head in Tests on both the 1959 and 1962 tours. Millar was the Lions’ most-used prop on that latter tour, playing in 16 of the 24 matches. He made 43 Lions appearances in all, scoring three tries.

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Being a member of four successive Lions tours to South Africa made Millar an expert on the place, as he proved as coach in 1974 and manager in 1980 when meeting two very different challenges. On the latter tour, Millar superbly fielded the political flak coming the Lions’ way as the international debate over sporting attitudes to apartheid reached its peak.

On the former, he produced a side manager Alun Thomas considered the best-prepared in the history of the game and was rewarded by becoming the only 20th century coach to beat the Springboks in a four-Test series in South Africa. Millar rated the 1959 side as the best he ever played in, but the triumph of 1974 still stands as his finest Lions hour.

Millar on the spirit of the Lions

“Attitude is the first thing a team needs to have. If the attitude is right, the other things fall into place.

“You will always have guys who are disappointed when they don’t get in the Test side. They may be star players in their own country but they could be only number three in their position in these islands. Those guys can turn off a bit.

“The second team is very important on Lions tours – it’s vital they keep their side of the tour up. The captain has to make sure those guys know how important they are to the team and to the final result.”

On the unique qualities of a Lions captain

“The captain has to be a psychologist because the players are all different.

“Some don’t like being away from home, for example, so the captain has to identify that and spend some time with them. Even though tours are now down to six weeks or so, that is still a long time compared to national tours today.

“Others lack confidence. It’s a big deal going on a Lions tour, especially for young players, and the captain has to make sure everyone feels involved.

“Sometimes it can be simple things like receiving communication from home. There was one player like that in 1974 and we made sure we didn’t hand out any letters until his had appeared.

“The main difference between captaining the Lions and captaining your country is of course that the captain has to unite four different sets of players. To do that, he has to be a motivator and a leader of men.

“The captain has to develop that pride in the Lions. He has to have the respect of the players, so you want to be sure the captain will hold his place in the team. That’s not absolutely critical but it’s very, very important.

“I made Willie John McBride Irish captain and I made him Lions captain too. He was my choice because I knew how he thought and he knew how I thought so it wouldn’t take long to get us working together.”

On touring South Africa, his home from home with the Lions

“South Africa is a great place to tour and on the High Veld, with their dry, hard grounds, it is a super place to play a handling game, while the huge public interest makes it something special – only New Zealand matches them for their enthusiasm and commitment to the game.

“To some degree it is hard to differentiate between playing and coaching but all four of my trips to South Africa were really good tours.

“I guess the 1962 tour was a good trip as a player, when we drew the first Test, lost the second 3-0 and the third on a mistake. It was a close series and perhaps we deserved a bit better.

“In 1968 we didn’t have the same capacity of players but we did OK and in 1974 as coach we didn’t lose a game – winning 21 and drawing one out of 22 matches and playing some great rugby along the way.”

Syd Millar’s factfile

Date of birth: May 23 1934
Clubs: Ballymena
International caps: Ireland 37
Height: 6ft (1.83m)
Weight: 16st (102kg)

Millar’s Lions lowdown

Lions debut: Versus New South Wales, May 30, 1959
Lions Tests: 9 (Both Tests vs Aus and 2nd Test vs NZ in 1959, all four Tests against SA in 1962, 1st and 2nd Tests vs SA in 1968)
Lions non-Test appearances: 34
Total Lions appearances: 43 (18 in 1959, 16 in 1962 and nine in 1968)
Lions points: 15* (three tries) *under the current scoring system of five points for a try
Final Lions appearance: Versus Orange Free State, Bloemfontein, July 20, 1968

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