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On this Day: The 1974 Invincibles get up and running

On this Day: The 1974 Invincibles get up and running

After a first ever series win in New Zealand three years earlier, the British and Irish Lions embarked on their 1974 tour to South Africa with expectations high.

"We had to make sure we weren’t going to be intimidated so it was very physical."

After a first ever series win in New Zealand three years earlier, the British and Irish Lions embarked on their 1974 tour to South Africa with expectations high.

Those expectations were met and surpassed in emphatic style as The Lions went on to win 21 of their 22 matches in the three-month tour, the other being a draw in the final Test, meaning they became the only Lions team to ever go a whole tour undefeated.

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Captained by Willie John McBride and coached by Syd Millar, both of whom had tasted victory and defeat in a Lions shirt, the players were prepared for a tour of attrition against notoriously physical Springbok and provincial sides.

The tour began in earnest on May 15, 1974, with the opening game against Western Transvaal at Olen Park, in in Potchefstroom, with The Lions romping away to a 59-13 victory.

New inclusion

Lock Roger Uttley was just 23 at the time and went into the tour with only three England caps to his name.
Named on the bench for the opening game, he had the perfect view of what was the start of a historic few months in Lions folklore.

The touring party had arrived in South Africa a fortnight earlier before holing up at the Three Fountains hotel in nearby village Stilfontein.

By the time the opening game came around they raring to go.

“The pre-match talk was all about how we were going to do, how we were going to find it really tough against these guys, so that was all well and good – but then we went out and took them to the cleaners,” said the 66-year-old.

“I always remember a great picture of Tommy David, running forward with the ball in his arm and their small scrum half was off the ground, on Tommy’s shoulders, as he ran forwards.

“It kicked off the tour in a great way, after all the preparation and the build up, I think everyone was just relieved to get the whole thing going and the boys who got the opening match really enjoyed themselves.

“I was a young lad with only three international matches under my belt so I was just grateful to be in the touring party at all.

“Being in the company of the likes of Gareth Edwards and Willie John, who was 35 by that time, I likened it a bit to being on tour with your dad.

“The lads who played in New Zealand in ’71 made up a hardcore of experience and the right level of determination and they knew what we needed to do to win, so young guys like me just followed in their wake initially.”

The game gets underway

Gordon Brown started the scoring in the first five minutes with the opening four points of a remarkable 719 they would rack up in just 22 tour matches.

Billy Steele, Clive Rees, John Moloney and Andy Ripley each also touched down once, with Tommy David and Sir Gareth Edwards adding a brace of tries each as The Lions ran in nine tries to Western Transvaal’s two.

The result was all the more remarkable given a significant proportion of the touring party were laid low with food poisoning ahead of the game.

Wales hooker Bobby Windsor made it through the game unscathed but his participation was in doubt after an unorthodox welcome to South Africa.

The Iron Duke laid low

“I got off the plane when we arrived in Johannesburg on a stretcher and spent the first six days in hospital. I’d got food poisoning from some prawn cocktail before the flight, and in the end eight or nine of us were ill,” he said.

“It wasn’t the ideal way to start the tour but I’d recovered in time for the first game.

“Syd Millar and Willie John McBride had been out before and they knew what to expect. We had to make sure we weren’t going to be intimidated so it was very physical.

“That game got us off to a great start to the tour.”

Unlike Windsor, Uttley did not get onto the pitch but still remembers the day itself and was taken aback by the warm reception The Lions received.

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“Potchefstroom was the local university town and full of farmers, it was just great to be there,” he added.

“In those days there were no real stadiums, certainly not for the provincial matches to be played so it was just a pitch surrounded by a few bleachers but the place was absolutely heaving and everybody was pleased to see us there – we got a great reception.

“It is always great to get the first game out of the way because you get selected and that is all very excited, then you get together and it’s all very exciting again, then you’re looking forward to the first game and there is a lot of pressure once the side has been announced.

“Then you eventually get out on the pitch and get to show what you are.”

After a fortnight in South Africa the squad were off and running on what would turn out to be a tour for the ages.

Uttley made his Lions debut in the second match, just three days later, as they beat South West Africa 23-16.

There were a further five provincial games to be played before the first Test came around, one of which saw the Lions rack up their highest ever points total with a 97-0 win over South West Districts.

It was the first game that had set the tone for the rest of the tour though, and McBride’s Lions would not let up, their only blip on a perfect scorecard coming on the final day with a draw in the fourth Test.
 
15 MAY 1974
BRITISH & IRISH LIONS XV (22) 59, WEST TRANSVAAL (13) 13 (Olen Park, Potchefstroom)
 
British & Irish Lions XV: JPR Williams; Billy Steele(T), Ian McGeechan, Roy Bergiers, Clive Rees(T); Phil Bennett(7C/3P), John Moloney(T); Ian McLauchlan, Bobby Windsor, Sandy Carmichael; Willie-John McBride (capt), Gordon Brown(T); Tony Neary, Tommy David(2T), Andy Ripley(T).
Bench: Gareth Edwards(2T), Fran Cotton, Andy Irvine, Ken Kennedy, Dick Milliken, Roger Uttley
Replacements used: Edwards for Moloney 47, Cotton for Carmichael 68
 
Leopards: Willie de Bruin(C/P); Johann van der Merwe, Piet Roodt, T. van der Berg, Izak Schaap(T); C. Taylor, Martin Benade; S. Raath, P. de Wet, Johnnie Burger; Jan Tromp, P. Brand; Richard Owen (capt), T. Jacobs, J. Stoffberg(T)
Replacements used: none
 
Scoring sequence: 5' Brown (T) 0-4, 7' Bennett (P) 0-7, 11' Steele (T) 0-11, Bennett (C) 0-13, 15' de Bruin (P) 3-13, 20' Moloney (T) 3-17, Bennett (C) 3-19, 25' Stoffberg (T) 7-19, 34' Schaap (T) 11-19, de Bruin (C) 13-19, 35' Bennett (P) 13-22, 42' Ripley (T) 13-26, Bennett (C) 13-28, 50' Bennett (P) 13-31, 55' David (T) 13-35, Bennett (C) 13-37, 60' Edwards (T) 13-41, Bennett (C) 13-43, 65' Rees (T) 13-47, Bennett (C) 13-49, 70' David (T) 13-53, Bennett (C) 13-55, 74' Edwards (T) 13-59
 
Referee: Piet Robbertse (South Africa)
Attendance: 25,000

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